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Expat Book Club Euthanasia

By April 28, 2010May 30th, 2017Uncategorized

“I am going to start a book club,” said HRH,  the other night, as we watched the evening news.

Expatriate Book Clubs, Jennifer ERemeeva

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

You could have knocked me down with a feather.

“But darling,” I said, “you don’t read.”

“I read the news,” he rejoined.

I thought about pointing out the difference between contemporary fiction and the news — glanced at the TV — and said instead:

“Book clubs, or good ones anyway, tend to focus on things like contemporary fiction, or non-fiction by knowledgeable pundits on the burning issues of our time.”

“Huh,” grunted HRH dismissively, “all of yours seem of focus on having way too much wine with your friends on Thursday nights.”

“Well,” I said defensively, “I have to have a book club.  I’m an expat.”

Living in a foreign country creates an immediate and insatiable urge to stay on top of cultural developments at home.  To do this, you seek out others from your native shores, meeting all kinds of people you never knew at home:  people with goatee beards, Republican people, and people who use “scrapbook” as a verb.   You agree to be a Girl Scout Leader, which turns out to be much better than you thought; then agree to help some twisted individual unpack a collection of 15,000 Russian matryoshka dolls, a Kafkaesque experience that time and alcohol turns into one of your favorite expat anecdotes.   In desperation, you seriously contemplate attending some form of divine service but reject it in favor of a lengthy lie in on the weekend.

Eventually, the universe cuts you some slack and you get invited to join an English-language book club, and this seems like the third stage to Nirvana.

Expats bring book clubs into the world with lofty aspirations: a carefully considered, handpicked list of participants, a firm commitment fixture on the calendar, and rarified guidelines: “focusing on native English-language fiction, currently enjoying critical acclaim.”   With time, however, the lack of a reliable source of books, and the general ebb and flow of expat life, the rules soften and then rot.  Blink, and your book club is poised on the brink of chaos:  Stephanie and Verity move back home, so you let Stacy, who isn’t, let’s face it, the sharpest tack in the box, join.   It proves impossible to find a date that works for anyone, so you skip March, and since no one’s husband went to London on business, there aren’t any copies of April’s book, but when you do get around to reading it the following September, the only “critical” material is something Amy copied and pasted from     And then comes the real death rattle: Becca, who hasn’t been in Moscow long enough to know better, invites her new Russian friend Olga to join, and unless some decisive action is taken, you’ll all be stuck reading Master & Margarita. Again.

Cordelia and I were in charge of just this kind of book club, and last Wednesday we met at Remy’s for garlic soup and literary euthanasia.   As usual, we had the place to ourselves, and Cordelia suggested we get the discussion over with so we could give ourselves wholly over to the soup.

“Kill it off,” she stated, drawing heavily on a Silk Cut Ultra Light, “shut it down.”

‘Did He Who Make The Lamb Make Thee?’ I thought to myself.

“Not remission, try a little chemo?” I ventured, “Dismantle until everyone gets back from Christmas?  Transfuse some new blood?”

“Nope,” said Cordelia in her definitive ‘the sun never sets on the British Empire’ manner, “If they want to continue, then fine, but I am not going to read one more of those sticky toffee pudding books ‘Ya Ya something-or-other.’”

“’The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood,’” I corrected, as two bowls of fragrant creamy soup were placed in front of us.  We inhaled silently. Remy’s may well be a front, but the chef makes a mean bowl of garlic soup.

“Tell you something else,” confided Cordelia, after several minutes of silent and reverent spoonfuls,  “If I have to read one more single thing by some woman from the Subcontinent who went to Oxford and writes about being a woman from the Subcontinent who went to Oxford, I will self-combust.”

There had been a longish run of that particular genre.

“And,” Cordelia, added, shaking a well-licked spoon at me, “Let me say this right now, I refuse to read anything about Aspergers’ Syndrome, bees, mermaids, or quilts.”

Cordelia had a point: it had been a precipitous slide from Ian McEwan to Jodi Picoult.

“Look,” said Cordelia, more softly, “It’s served its purpose:  you and I have become friends. That’s what an expat book club is for.  Don’t worry, I’ll send out the e-mail. Now, I propose we just have another bowl of this soup for our second course, and I tell you what, how about, just this once, we split a bottle of wine?”

Author’s Note:  This post first appeared as a column entitled “Kill The Book Club” (I know…can you STAND it????? Olga Quelque chose strikes again!) in Russia Beyond The Headlines on April 28, 2010 and a link to that version can be found here.

Dear Reader:

Everyone has a book club story…what’s yours?  Did you have to kill it off because someone wanted to read Jonathan Franzen?  Is your book club still intact, and if so, what’s your secret?   What are you reading now? What’s your take on Oprah?  Do you sometimes feel you can just, like, read on your own?  Log in by hitting the Comment button below (it’s there…really, it’s just very small and it is stuck amongst all of those other tags… and  as soon as one of you does, it is so much easier for the others.

And just as a reminder to those very deeply embedded readers in the Pioneer Valley, I’m still up for joining your bookclub…even if you are reading Jodi Picoult.  That’s OK.


  • Susan says:

    Love my book club more and more each month. The secret is not to sweat the book too much. Or indeed talk about it too much. We mainly talk about food. But next month – just for you, my dearest Guy – we are revisiting Brideshead.
    Ever Yours, Julia

  • t says:

    don’t even mention J Franzen. Ever. I’m loving this blog Jen. It reminds of all that I’ve left behind…

  • Kate says:

    Missing the Moscow book club heaps. I wonder if anyone’s ever tried a virtual book club?

  • M.E.M says:

    How about the book club member that ordered the books for you all seldom reading the words himself–save for the jacket. He than pretended to be the expert during discussions.
    The infamous Dinner/Bridge Club should bring back some words for an article!!!
    One of your Republican friends!!

  • One of Two Republican Friends: I can’t think to whom you refer…

  • Kathy says:

    I tried a book club once – it was part of a local “Moms” club in my town. I didn’t really like their books choices, and they had no interest in mine (historical non-fiction) so I lasted one book. Everyone has different tastes and mine just don’t lean toward “Twilight”; I’ve tried the Oprah online bookclub – but her choices don’t usually interest me either.
    So . . . I read alone!

  • T, what you left behind misses you!

  • Kate, of course the book club in question is the one we killed off. It couldn’t survive your absence!

  • Mads says:

    Hilarious! Was reading this and thinking, ‘this should be made into a movie’, (or maybe a TV show). Then again, i think that has been done . . so nevermind.
    I’ve done the bookclub thing in Wales (which might have certain stories to rival your Moscow), but we met at the library, which kept things a little more in line than the restaurant scenario. And how about going with a Booker nomination list? That guarantees a good read (and strong debate to go with the vino).

  • Hi, Jennifer. What an awesome blog! I’m a self-professed travel junkie, and reading interesting blogs from other countries holds me over until my next grand adventure. I’ve never been to Russia but it is HIGH on the list. My number one question (pretty much about any country), how is the food?!?
    I’ve never been part of a book club, but I had the same problem with a cooking club I joined a few years back. You never know what to expect from these kinds of things and it wasn’t quite my style. I had good reason to drop out when I moved across the country. Phew!
    Thanks for stopping by the Cellulite Investigation and leaving such a lovely comment. So nice to “meet” you!

  • Potty Mummy says:

    I’m an avid reader but have never joined a book club. Maybe Moscow is the place to change that… Great blog Jennifer and when you head back to Moscow in June maybe drop me a line on Best, PM

  • Loved this – you made me laugh. We had a stillborn bookclub, which is, perhaps, even more tragic than euthanasia. A bunch of us met, thought it might be a good idea, even had some book suggestions. That was the first and last meeting! It just unraveled (if a thing that was never formed up in the first place can unravel…) I found you on Blogher and you’re going on my rss reader page. See you again soon!

  • I belonged to a bookclub once that quickly devolved into me and the wife of the head of the British Counsel. She would pick me up (since her dip plates meant the cops would never stop her for a random breathalyzer), we’d drive into the Old Town (Bratislava), and have a pizza. One of us would eventually say, “So, didja read the book?”
    “Uh-huh,” the other would reply with a mouth full of pizza or wine or both. We always did read the book.
    Then we would talk about our husbands.
    It was perfect.

  • Phil Clapham says:

    Hello Jen, we met at an airport somewhere or other last year (or the year before… senility has set in since then and extirpated most of the few remaining brain cells that hadn’t already died a lingering death to gin). Whale biologist with a Russian spouse (my very own HRH, Heavenly Russian Housewife).
    Book clubs: yes. Had one when I lived back east, and it was really just a flimsy excuse to cook big meals and drink good wine once a month with friends. Sometimes we actually read the books… this was, after all, Cape Cod in winter, where short of making fun of New Yorkers or staring, zombie-like, at the bird feeder in the hope of seeing something more exotic than a starling or a blue jay, there’s really very little to do. The club died a natural death when one member nominated a book that everyone unanimously detested (I recall throwing it across the room in disgust after page 30 and scaring the cats).
    Ergo, my conclusion: book clubs are great so long as alcohol is a central part of meetings, and the books remain strictly optional.
    Love the blogs. Keep writing.

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