January 24: “Hello! Welcome to Book Club” by Helen Ellis

Teaching literature classes at a university is kind of like running a book club, only more structured, more formal, and more goal-orientated. While a book club can be whatever it wants to be—a lot of them are just fronts for sex clubs or medical marijuana rings, I’m convinced—lit classes carry with them expectations. A professor has to meet goals, shape lives, educate. When I choose my syllabus, it can’t be, contrary to my desires, just a bunch of stories and novels I think are cool. There’s a course title (I teach Contemporary American Fiction every spring), a course description, a syllabus, learning outcomes, assignments, grades, and, of course, actual humans sitting in front of you with a variety of needs. Me just riffing, teaching whatever strikes my mood, would eventually get me in trouble.

Poet Jeffrey McDaniel once described how he runs his yearly Contemporary American Poetry class, that he teaches fifteen books released in that calendar year, every year, the syllabus rolling over completely every fall. I’d love to do that, just teach a bunch of new books, books I’ve never read, and experience them with my students. I’ve also considered teaching a different contemporary author every day, three stories (or so) by each writer, so the students would get to know forty-five different people’s work. Either of these approaches would give the students excellent exposure to a wide variety of very recent work, a working knowledge of what was going on in letters, American and whathaveyou. I don’t think I could pull it off, for a variety of reasons, plus there’s certain books on my current syllabus, like Beloved or The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, that might otherwise fall through the cracks; my department has pointed out that those classic-types are handy for things like comprehensive exams and the lit GRE. Maybe one day, if I make full Professor, I can give of them a try, but until then, I have a pretty good list.

That’s why I started this little book club blog called Story366 (again, I’m going to keep italicizing blog titles until someone tells me I’m wrong), so I can play DJ with all the authors, books, and stories I like and want other people to know about. DJs don’t even have that kind of power any more—set lists are all pre-programmed now—so this blog is even better. Sure, some of you might turn the dial if you don’t like a story or author I choose, but you’ll probably flip back when another short story blog is at commercial, or playing too much Thin Lizzy. Plus, you can’t give me all 1s on my evals the last day of class.

This all leads me to today’s subject, “Hello! Welcome to Book Club” by Helen Ellis. It’s from her brand-new collection, American Housewife: Stories, released last week by Doubleday. I saw it fronted at Barnes & Noble yesterday during my weekly sojourn to the Thomas train set-up with my toddler, but had seen it on Amazon a day or two before. Since I’ve started this blog, I do things like keep track of new story collections coming out, then make efforts to get them sooner rather than later. I may be turning into the blogger who buys books on their release date, standing outside the store, waiting for it to open, which would harken back to foggy undergrad years, going to record stores at midnight to get that new Pavement ASAP. I do not mind this regression. Next, maybe I’ll join a wallyball league.

What Ellis depicts in “Hello! Welcome to Book Club” is what happens in a lot of book clubs, I’m guessing: Nobody actually reads anything. This story’s not about any one book, and unless I’m wrong, there isn’t a single author or title mentioned, nor is there one instance of someone discussing books at any time. Book club is a social club, on the surface, a variety of women, of all descriptions, coming together. Ellis creates something much more ambitious, though, as the club also forms its own little society, with roles, with hierarchies, and with problems, the least of which is some dumb book.

The narrator of the story is the book club president, who acts as a docent for a potential new member. In fact, the POV is done almost exactly how it’s done in Daniel Orozco’s wonderful “Orientation,” a standard on my workshop syllabi for years. Here, President Mary Beth gives the tour, informing this new member, referred to simply as “you” throughout, what everyone’s place is, what she can expect, what Book Club is. Ellis veers from Orozco a bit, though, by having Mary Beth interact with the different members, react to them, answering questions, making comments, giving orders; only Mary Beth’s dialogue shows up on the page, though, the other members’ words left off the page, implied. The story is a monologue, then, written in real time, present tense, what Mary Beth is saying to this you. It’s certainly a different way to tell a story, a specific perspective I’ve not seen before.

What it does, more than anything, is draw a profile of Mary Beth, forming an all-encompassing character sketch. We watch her work her way through her people, showcasing this little world she’s created. Every little rule, every description, every detail reveals another quirk, another obsession, another way she’s completely original. “Hello! Welcome to Book Club,” in essence, is a character sketch of Mary Beth. She’s hysterical—“Aretha’s fertility specialist also happens to be her husband. He’s got the highest insemination success in the country, but Marjorie won’t go hear him. Niether will the ladies on the red sofa. The ladies on the gray sofa will resort to using him only if their acupuncture and herbal immersion tanks fail.”—without trying to be. She’s just telling it like it is, according to her own, skewed perspective.

American Housewife is full of such sketches, of witty women who seem to handle domesticity with gusto, charging at it like a ram. The lead story, the short “What I Do All Day,” chronicles a day in the life of one of those titular women, while “How to Be a Grown-Ass Lady” and “My Novel Is Brought to You by the Good People at Tampax” give practical advice on how to escape it. Each story I read is as funny and unique as “Hello! Welcome to Book Club,” and I read a few more than I had to to find a story for today. I love this book.

 Before American Housewife, Helen Ellis published a novel, Eating the Cheshire Cat, and according to her bio on the jacket flap, is a professional poker player, competing in national tournaments. What a joy it must be to sit at a table next to Ellis, her dry humor filling the void between flips. What no one knows is that Ellis is a master of characters, staring down everyone at the table, figuring each of them out, their goofy hats and sunglasses no match for this author’s keen eye.

Helen Ellis