Saturday, August 10, 2013

On Reading and Writing

by Leslie Budewitz
Author of Death al Dente

Leave a comment this weekend to enter the drawing for a free copy of Death al Dente!

For nearly twenty years, I’ve belonged to a monthly book club. Stephen King says if you want to write, you’ve got to read. While I won’t add, “so join a book club,” being part of one has made me a better writer. Why? It’s made me a better reader.

In my first group—started by two couples and still buzzing after thirty-plus years—members chose books by consensus. Alas, I moved. In my current group, the hostess makes the choice. I argued for consensus when we formed, wanting to have a voice in what we chose. Turns out both methods work equally well. Both groups have brought books into my life that I might not have found on my own. When serious readers band together, it’s inevitable that tastes differ, as do sources for recommendations and reasons for choosing a book. Some members audition books, to make sure they’re choosing one they really want to share. Others are less particular, knowing the interaction adds to the experience.

Would we have read Wicked by Gregory Maguire if Jean’s daughter-in-law hadn’t raved about it? Probably not—but then, we’d have missed a seriously weird-ass book and an evening of green food. We would not have read Montana Women, the story of two sisters in the 1950s, if author Toni Volk had not rented Pauline’s guest house.

Joan loves rereading classics: Madame Bovary, Catcher in the Rye, and Willa Cather’s My Mortal Enemy. Others approach them with trepidation, not wanting to sully the memory of our “first time.” Consider Catcher in the Rye—neither story nor voice is as appealing to an adult reader as to a fifteen-year-old discovering it for the first time and realizing they are not alone in their fears and anxieties.

My own choices have not always been hits: One member reads the popular Montana writer Ivan Doig reluctantly, and groaned when I chose his first book, This House of Sky, a memoir of his sheep-ranching boyhood. I wanted to reread it while working on a historical novel (still unfinished) set in central Montana, to immerse myself in that land. Several members grew up in Montana in the same decades as Doig, and I loved hearing their stories when we gathered. Earlier this year, another member chose Doig’s latest, The Bartender’s Tale, and the reluctant reader admitted enjoying it. It tops my list so far this year. It reminded me, as did The Whistling Season, that some writers simply aren’t convincing storytellers when they stray from their natural subject matter. Doig is at his best in the voice of a young boy verging on adolescence, discovering family secrets, and beginning to see the world in a new light.

Some readers have a higher tolerance for challenging books than others: Arvind Adiga’s satirical novel, The White Tiger, upset one reader who thought it a harsh and unfair portrayal of modern India. Jennifer Egan’s Goon Squad, Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, and José Saramago’s Death with Interruptions delighted some and baffled others. My choice of Toni Morrison’s The Mercy forced me to be creative with the food for the evening—no theme dinner opportunities—and to explain why I so admired a book about such a difficult subject: the varieties of slavery in early America. (I’ve read it three times.) And when we discussed my choice of Aimee Bender’s The Peculiar Sadness of Lemon Cake, we had a lively debate about the boundaries of the senses—over lemon tart.

It’s been a gift to meet unfamiliar books: the richly exotic Silk by Allesandro Baracci, The Moonflower Vine by Jetta Carleton, and the delicious The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak. (Talk about theme food options!) And popular books I might have skipped: the haunting A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khalid Hosseini, the fast-paced evocation of the 1930s, The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, and the delightful but poignant The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Anne Schaeffer and Annie Burrows.

Occasionally, we’ve all loved the book—which can shorten discussion, although a social or political issue may spark conversations beyond the page: Jamie Ford’s Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet prompted a discussion of the treatment of Chinese and Japanese Americans during “the war,” as well as “the road not taken.” For me, it prompted thoughts of a landscape destroyed by progress—my work in progress is set in Seattle, as is Ford’s book, and the area where his characters lived is vastly changed, much of it lost first to industrialization and now to professional sports arenas. I think of those characters as I write, wanting to keep in my mind the influence of their lives and experiences on the city and its current residents.

The best discussion ever has to have been of the one book we all hated, A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goldrick. I felt badly for Peggy, our newest member at the time: her first choice had been unavailable, so she settled for a bookseller’s last-minute recommendation. But we laughed so hard—and her coconut cake was so good—that the book quickly became beside the point.

Like many writers, I keep a notebook filled with observations on everything I read, noting what works for me and what doesn’t, phrases I like, things I’d do differently. It’s richer because I spend an evening a month with women who love to read and to cook, and who encourage me as a writer. So, to paraphrase Stephen King, if you want to write, join a book club!

Leave a comment this weekend to enter the drawing for a free copy of Death al Dente!
Death al Dente, first in the Food Lovers' Village Mysteries, debuted from Berkley Prime Crime on August 6. The series is set in a small, lakeside resort community in Northwest Montana, on the road to Glacier Park, near where author Leslie Budewitz lives. Leslie is also a lawyer. Her first book, Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law & Courtroom Procedure (Quill Driver Books) won the 2011 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction. Visit her at


Anonymous said...

My experiences with Leslie prove she is not only smart, talented, but a lovely, generous person - and I always look for her comments on various blogs! I'd love to win the book! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

Anonymous said...

One of my closest friends is from Montana, and I've become rather curious about that land. The idea of a book club intrigues me, as I love to discuss books.

Suzanne McGuffey

Sheila Connolly said...

Welcome, Leslie! And I heartily second what you said about needing to read (everything and always). You're lucky that your group provides a wonderful range of books--it's too easy for writers to get bogged down reading within their own genre, and then they lose sight of the bigger picture.

And obviously you've used your reading well--your new book Death al Dente is delightful (I'm in the middle of it now).

Cheryl said...

I've recently joined our local library's mystery discussion group called Murder By The Book. It's led by a librarian who chooses and leads the discussion. I'm reading way outside my comfort zone and enjoying the trip.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Welcome to PDD and huge congrats on the new book, Leslie! Your lovely post highlights one of the differences between Montana and New York. Sounds like you have no trouble finding a congenial group of readers willing to get together once a month. Here, it can take months to find a date to meet even one's oldest and closest friends for dinner.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Thanks for the warm welcome. I'll be in and out over the weekend, but couldn't leave home this morning without first checking in here!

Thelma, thanks for the kind words. Suzanne, Montana is a huge and varied state -- no book club in the book, but I'm thinking there will be a foodie book club in a future installment!
Sheila, many thanks!
Cheryl, a mystery book club! How cool is that?!
And Liz, it's the 2d Tues; be there or be talked about!

Marilyn Levinson said...

I'm in two book clubs--one a mystery group in my library that I'd been asked to lead but had to beg off when my husband was so ill. Everyone makes a suggestion. Since most are series, we read the first book in the series. My other book club reads all sorts of books. Our last was FREEMAN, which was one of the best books I've ever read. In both groups comments flow freely. I often think that some of the criticisms should have been picked up by editors. I enjoy the discussions. Only problem is my book club selections take away time from the books I want to read. If only there were more than 24 hours in a day!

Kathleen L. Asay said...

I'm a long time member of book groups, finding them wherever we've lived, and I second your comments. I've read wonderful books I never would have found otherwise. This year's favorite: Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard about the assassination of President Garfield. Even though you know how it ends, it's suspenseful throughout.
As a writer, however, I find my primary contribution is to teach my friends about writing and the construction of the book. We learn both ways.

Anonymous said...

My brother's family lives in Montana. They started out in Lolo, Missoula and Stevensville and now Great Falls to be near their grandchild. I've visited a couple times and loved it, but I'm thawed out from Ohio and living in Southern Cal, so visits it will have to be. I've been in a book discussion group before, which had its merits. It was held at the senior center. Love to win the book so please put me in the draw. I'm also half-Italian, so the al dente caught my attention. Thanks.

Di Eats the Elephant said...

Leslie, great comments again...(just saw your other interview on Jungle Red Writers!). I've belonged to only one book club, a sub-group of my Hadassah Women's group. The hostess picked that book as well. I didn't notice a lot of food, but I guess it's cause there always is food, and I am sure there was no theme to it. The books tended to get into a theme of biographies of people who were Jewish, or had a Jewish identity. For sure, I would not have read some of them on my own. I like the way you described your book club and wonder where I'd find one where I'm working (day job) now. There are only 3 bookstores around here that I have heard of...even tho there are universities. Surely they have English degrees there, yes? LOL

Sandra Parshall said...

I've attended several book group meetings when my books were being discussed and I was the guest. Not only am I always impressed by the depth of the discussion, and the members' understanding of my characters, but I also start to miss the days when I was a book group member. I don't even have time to read now -- although I listen to audiobooks every second I can -- much less attend meetings. Leslie, you're lucky!

Leslie Budewitz said...

The last two weekends, I've been selling my book at local arts festivals, and quite a few copies have gone to book clubs. So far, only one is in the area -- and I'll be visiting. Looking forward to switching roles for the evening! The conversations I've had with the book buyers demonstrate that book clubs are a key part of women's lives in this particular time; we find connections there that matter deeply.

Thanks for sharing your experiences.

Katreader said...

I've never been involved in a book club. I'm open to new books, but my TBR pile is so high I'd hate to add to it. I do love the idea of themed food!