Before my first collection came out, I toyed with the notion of adding a recipe section in the middle of the book because many of the stories were about the Egyptian Jewish food I was raised on. Books, especially self-published story collections by completely unknown former powder paint salesmen are, as it turns out, surprisingly hard to market and I thought the recipes might be a compelling hook. One July morning, over a breakfast of scrambled eggs at the cottage, I made the mistake of casually suggesting it might be of interest for book clubs. I actually thought it was a pretty good idea. This led my sister-in-law to utter the sentence which became the family’s favorite line in the summer of 2020.
“Your book,” she said in her completely honest and unfiltered style, “is not book club material.”
Before I could even react, my niece Danna came running out of the bedroom where she had, I was pretty sure, been fast asleep and added “Book clubs Uncle Ronnie? Seriously?”
I’m not going to lie. It kinda stung. They must have seen the look on my face and began a group backpedal befitting a team of circus unicyclists. Book clubs, they explained, read thick best-selling novels with complicated themes, motifs, and plotlines. Grey matter material they could discuss over coffee and low-fat gluten-free banana muffins. They went on to list a bunch of books as examples. Most of them appeared to have the word Crawdad in the title. Anyway, book clubs, they stated emphatically, did not read short story collections.
This, I knew, was patently untrue. Book clubs did, occasionally, include short story collections and humorous memoirs in their reading lists.
But that wasn’t the point. I was just wondering if I should include a few pages of recipes like my mother’s sofrito chicken. It was just an idea.
‘Not book club material’ became a bit of a catch all phrase that summer. We would apply it to a poorly executed dive off the dock, a bad pickle ball serve, and even a batch of BBQ chicken which had, because left on the grill a bit too long, dried up a little. It’s good, but it’s not book club material, someone would say with a smile. Teasing is part of the culture up at the cottage and Caroline and I are generally the prime targets. The irony of course is that in this instance I was pretty sure we were making fun of her when in fact, they were making fun of me.
That is only to say I could not hide my pleasure when, on Labour Day weekend, I received an email from Beth Middleton of the SVVGBC. The SVVGBC, for those of you who are not au courant with your California book club acronyms, is the Simi Valley Valley Girls Book Club. Beth Middleton was the Secretary-Treasurer. Or maybe she was the Treasurer-Secretary. I’m not entirely sure. I think she was in charge of collecting the fees so they could buy coffee and low-fat gluten free banana muffins. The members of the SVVGBC were not actually from Simi Valley, they all lived in nearby Moorpark, and they were not girls, from the valley or otherwise - they were empty nesters who, in addition to playing tennis, bridge, and speed walking, got together once a month to talk about books and gossip about the goings on in their town. Also, as I soon learned, their drink of choice was mojitos and their muffins were, as Beth Middleton liked to say with a giggle, full fucking fat.
Every month a member of the group would pick a book and when it was member Adele Ben-Simon’s turn, she picked Almost the Truth: Stories and Lies, which was my book, because a cousin of hers, who I think was a third cousin of mine, had suggested she read it because like me, Adele was a child of Egyptian Jews.
So that’s what she picked and there may have been a little grumbling, Beth Middleton dropped a few hints, by some of the more traditional and conservative members of the SVVGBC because the book was a thin collection of short humorous vignettes and not a thick sweeping historical saga replete with overriding themes about the human condition. Also, it did not have Crawdads in the title. Beth Middleton said it would be good to have a break from serious reading.
So the SVVGBC had read my book and Beth Middleton emailed me to ask if I would do a Zoom reading. Adele was going to make her sambozas. I think she meant to say sambousek, a delicious pastry filled either with cheese or ground meat and pomegranates, which was an appetizer staple in the Middle East, but she might have mixed it up with the Indian curry puff known as samosa.
Either way they were all very excited and I said I would be delighted.
I walked down the path to the dock where my family was congregated in order to announce that a book club in California had asked me to be a guest speaker. I auditioned a few zingers in my head and finally settled on “Not book club material eh? Well suck on that bitches!” Which, I admit, was not one which would have made Oscar Wilde green with envy “Damn, why didn’t I think of that,” but it was the best I could come up with. I mean, the walk to the dock was not that long and I was moving at a pretty good clip. But then I changed my mind. Not because I realized I was being petty, childish, immature, and small minded. But because, if I waited a little longer to tell them, I could be even more petty, childish, immature, and small minded.
And so, I did the Zoom reading. I spent a little more time than I care to admit choosing an outfit. I also got Danna to cut my hair, without telling her why, and spent the extra time required to trim my nose hairs. The reading went great. I read Crossing the Nile, which was a story about food and being a little different, and then, without needing much encouragement, read a second story, Yorkdale, the I hoped funny tale recounting the trip I took to the mall with my wheelchair bound friend Harold in order to buy him a mattress. It got a lot of laughs. There was then a short Q and A; I grandly espoused my thoughts about meta fiction. For a few short-lived (I am told I use ‘ephemeral’ too much) moments, I felt like a real writer. They toasted the book with a couple of rounds of mojitos, and then we all signed off. It was a great night.
It should have been a triumph but, I don’t know why, it felt a little hollow. It was, as best as I could tell, the only book club that had ever taken on any of my books and it was beginning to look very much like the confirmation of the old adage, one which I still don’t really understand, of the exception proving the rule. Not really book club material. So I never said anything. I only told Allie. Whatever revenge I was hoping to exact would, at best, be served at room temperature.
The reading occurred in September and with a blink of an eye, fall turned into winter and we conducted our annual Secret Santa, although using the Hebraic ‘Hanukkah Harry’ moniker, on Zoom. My bubble expanded to ten and, forgoing my annual migration to Florida, I saw the cottage for the first time under a blanket of ice and snow. We took turns making big dinners and then took hours picking the evening movie. I tried snowshoeing and, like most activities in my life, enjoyed talking about it better than actually doing it. There was no confusion about who was being made fun of when my brother later announced that in the middle of the hike, one I had badly overdressed for despite his protestations, I had turned to him and asked if he maybe had a towel so I could wipe my back clean of the accumulated sweat. I didn’t go snowshoeing again. I confirmed I could not build a fire beyond burning up every section of the Sunday New York Times. I also confirmed that the secret to life was to spend the better part of 60 years lowering the bar as much as possible so that one day when you inexplicably and uncharacteristically decide to participate in the midnight tequila shot and toboggan run, your youngest niece Rena will gleefully proclaim it have to been epic.
I wrote stories almost every day that month of December. Some of the stories you are about to read. I wrote them on my iPhone, reclining on the couch facing the fire I had not built. I sent them to Kubes, and to Rob, and Ellen, and Mutley, and my cousin Morris, to Marianne, Miles, Jules and Tatiana, to Julie and Joel, to my brother-in-law Jamie and my sister Danielle in Israel, to Brian, to Elan and Malka, to Carainn and Karen, to Allan, my fellow Egyptian, to Elena, to Faye and to Steve and Fern, to Harold and Gili, who in turn forwarded them to their children, to Tuddy in Ottawa, and to other friends and family. I read them out loud ad nauseam at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, to my brother Dov, and to my sister-in-law Caroline, to Sammy, Danna, Rachel and Rena and their respective husbands and boyfriends. They all interrupted their school, jobs, life, family, TV, Instagram, and books to read and listen and, without exception, encourage.
I’m not sure if these stories are book club material. I’m not sure I care. But it turns out I was part of a pretty good book club all the same. Once in a while, one of the members will even drop off some muffins.