Hedgehogging our bets on book club

A European hedgehog, which is bigger than an African hedgehog./Wikimedia Commons

By Laura Grimes

Book Club is coming. Book Club is coming.

And it’s coming to my house.

I never thought I was a Book Club person. I love the idea of a gathering of people for the primary reason of discussing a book, but I chafe at the thought of being told what to read, spending hours on a book that I didn’t pick, and facing a deadline to finish reading something when I prefer to just enjoy it as a leisurely hobby. And then there’s the looming threat to be disciplined about finishing a book. The dreaded D word.

But a funny thing … I developed a liking for these people. I thought I would have Book Club Commitment Issues (like George Clooney), but I’ve grown so … so … attached.

Before I started attending this club 2.5 years ago, I hadn’t met anyone in the group except for one person, and her only briefly. I officially bowed out at one point, but dang if they weren’t nice, dang if they weren’t funny, dang if they didn’t pick tantalizing books, dang if they didn’t say there was no pressure to finish a book, and dang if I didn’t have good fun every single time. I like to know about their kids and their kitchen remodels. I like to rib them. They like to rib me. And, hey, we discuss books. How cool is that?

And the books! I discovered great reads I likely would never have picked up on my own or would have been way down my list. Books like Plainsong by Kent Haruf, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. They were magical.

Sure, there were some books I didn’t like so much. Like Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay. I appreciated the historical information about the persecution of Jews during World War II in France. I’ve read a considerable amount of nonfiction about the Holocaust (it was an obsession for some years after I lived in Germany during college until I had my gory fill and couldn’t read anymore), but the story about the Veledrome d’Hiver outside Paris was surprisingly new to me. And heartbreaking. The fictional historical account was riveting and would have carried me through the book fine, but, sadly, the contrived plot that took place in the present and the ridiculous (un)romantic storyline kept getting in the way. And that little kid locked in the cupboard? Don’t even go there. I got that book out of my house as soon as I was (unfortunately) done with it.

This book club, which a couple of members started 10 years ago, is blessedly laid back, which is about as much as I can handle. It meets every other month (again, manageable, especially with my sickeningly slow reading speed). It’s all women (which I thought would bug me, but it’s been a blast). The group fluctuates around 10, which means hosting roughly every 1.5 years (see, not so bad).

Whoever hosts, based on a semi-regular schedule, cooks dinner. The food is sort of supposed to relate to the book that’s going to be discussed, but it’s not a must. We eat, drink wine, catch up and eventually get around to talking about the book. Sometimes it’s insightful and probing, and other times it skims along. It doesn’t matter. Sometimes everyone agrees and sometimes the discussion is divisive and contentious. Again, it doesn’t matter. The conversations are always good-natured and spirited. It’s about having a good time.

People occasionally invite others to come to a gathering. Sometimes they stick (like me), sometimes they don’t (so what). There’s no voting, no popularity contest, no test to pass and no hazing. It’s a wonderfully positive, supportive group.

Whoever hosts picks the next book. And there’s no rule about that, either. Fiction/nonfiction, contemporary/classic (though by tradition not usually too historical), male/female writers, local/international. I try to be mindful of picking a book that is inexpensive and easy to access, which means popular enough to be available at the library and out in paperback (and hopefully audio). Picking something that will be engaging and well-liked is high on my list. Because who wants to slog?

We’re reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, which the cover tells me was a New York Times Bestseller. Huh. But I’ll save my comments about it until tomorrow. I have to finish it first.

Right now I got other news. A hedgehog is coming to book club.  Seriously. A real live hedgehog. Even though the book has nothing to do with hedgehogs, except metaphorically.

A woman I had never met before sat across from me at a birthday brunch a few days ago. She had come straight from the river paddling dragonboats and her pants were still wet. I advised her not to go around telling people her pants were wet.

When she found out that several of us at the table were in the same book club, she said she had belonged to one in San Francisco and would like to find one here in Portland. Spontaneously I told her to come to my house and find out if this one was a good fit. We were fun people. Honest. She asked what we were reading. When she found out, her eyes lit up. She rescues hedgehogs. That pretty much sealed it.

While we passed plates and filled glasses, I peppered her with every question I could think of about hedgehogs because I was just plum fascinated how someone gets involved in rescuing such an unusual animal.

Why hedgehogs? She got one years ago as an inappropriate wedding gift. She was miffed, but she learned all about it, and discovered it had an adorable personality. Now she has three, two rescued and one relinquished. They’re all litterbox trained and have their own room to roam around in. What do they eat? In the wild, they’re insectivores so in captivity, high protein and low fat. Does she dig up worms in the back yard for them? No, she said, because … wait for it … you don’t know where they’ve been.

But the best part is she agreed to bring one of her hedgehogs. (I’m restraining myself from going exclamation point crazy here because once I start I’ll likely run out of them.)

The book club friend next to me at the table said that now that I’ve invited someone into the club that makes me a lifer. I’m not so sure. I found out another member emailed a few folks she felt comfortable with to ask them to save dryer lint for her. Dryer lint. Something to do with being crafty and clever and making fire starters. I didn’t get the dryer lint memo. So apparently I have a little ways to go in the book club social strata.

The last time book club met at my house it was summer and we talked about Small Island by Andrea Levy, another stunning read. I served semi-Caribbean food and a fifth of rum. The rum went over really well. Really well.

This time I have to serve French food. I can’t decide whether it’s going to be frogs, snails or overstuffed goose liver.

When I heard the early reviews about Hedgehog from other members I sent an email:

Now I’m worried. I was agitated about wading through the thick deception and threat of child suicide at the beginning, then buoyed by the gleeful reviews and now I’m agitated again. Better find something stronger than rum for this party.

Someone’s reply: “Heroin?”

That inspired me to offer a pickle swap at the gathering for anyone who wants to participate and bring something in exchange. What I’m putting on the table for swappage:

Dill pickles (the gateway drug), sweet pickles (first one’s free), piccalilli (an addictive relish), apple chutney (pure tar heroin).

Yes, this could make me a big-time pickle dealer. Let’s see what the swappage brings in. The Small Large Smelly Boy is really hoping for a hedgehog.


PHOTO: A European hedgehog, which is bigger than an African hedgehog./Wikimedia Commons