Today I'm so happy to welcome Valerie Laken, author of the novel Dream House, which is just out in paperback. In her riveting debut novel, Pushcart Prize-winning Laken tells the story of one troubled house—the site of a domestic drama that will forever change the lives of two families. Embracing volatile issues such as race, class, and gentrification, while seamlessly mixing genres as diverse as crime fiction, suspense, and home renovation, Dream House has been called a “sexy, sharp-eyed, deeply haunted, [and] wonderful book” by Charles Baxter, author of the National Book Award finalist The Feast of Love.
Today Laken talks about growing up reading in secret, the lure of libraries and her ideal book club. Which led me to wonder, what would my ideal book club look like? Actually, I think it would be pretty close to the one that I have, so I feel lucky, but I am drawn to her idea of a multigenerational group. Think about what your dream book club would look like--it can be the one you're in now, or one you wish to be in. Post a comment about it and I'll choose one random winner from all the comments received by midnight Friday February 5th to win a copy of Dream House.
I grew up in the days before book clubs, in a town where people talked about trucks, not books, in a house that had a lot of nice stuff, but not very many bound pages with words on them. There were four built-in book shelves in our family room that my mother — a reluctant decorator, suspicious of trinkets — seemed to regard as a personal trial.
Over the years, the shelves filled up somehow, in the way that any storage device will fill up. The top shelf went to her prized collection of model horses from childhood. On the two lower shelves books with functions accumulated: tax books, textbooks, Dale Carneggie’s self-help, and one untouched copy of our lone parenting book — whose cover featured a naked woman breastfeeding, horrifying me. There were some books my sister had made in grade school, a big falling-apart dictionary, and squeezed in there somewhere, my parents’ lone novel: a ragged copy of The Marathon Man, with Dustin Hoffman on the cover.
But the pièce de résistance, the thing my mom polished and beamed over and would jump up from the dinner table to consult, was a generic red encyclopedia set that she got for free at our grocery store, one volume per week with each cart of groceries. (We never got F, though. We were on vacation the week of F.)
The remaining shelf, just under the horses and out of our reach, held the most mysterious volumes: old yearbooks and photo albums showing impossible things like my mother in a bikini on a beach before I knew her, looking more carefree than she had ever seemed in my presence. She was a cheerful, intensely efficient mother of four girls born almost all in a row. She tutored high schoolers and helped run my dad’s business and kept the house as clean and uncluttered as a hotel room. Books, we gathered, were made for idle people, and idle people were not much championed in our house.
Still, as a former math teacher she understood the value of books, at least in the abstract. She read to us when we were little and let us order one book each whenever the Scholastic Books catalog showed up at school – which was more than a lot of parents did. And every Friday she took us all the way downtown to the Rockford Public Library. This was in the days before anyone much talked about child predators, so we were allowed to roam the entire four floors on our own. There were window nooks to curl into, footstools to kick around and climb on, and stacks of books that towered above us and hid us.
There was a silence you just don’t find in a house with four kids. Best of all: inside those walls everyone was a reader. An unashamed, out-of-the-closet reader. This was my first inkling of a book club, my first assurance that I was not alone.
In fact, one of my sisters was (and remains) an avid reader, but like me she tended to do it in secret. Under covers, behind armchairs, in the back part of the basement. It wasn’t that anyone would scold us or stop us; I’m not sure why we hid our habit. Maybe because reading in the presence of nonreaders is like bringing a skeptic to church. Sure, it might be a good idea, but somehow it strains that slender bridge that carries you from your real world to the other.
As we got older, that sister and I passed books back and forth, reporting on our findings and favorites, while my other two sisters built lives more productive, more normal. I sought out other readers, those deviants lurking in libraries, English classes and bookstores, but I never could quite shake my habit of reading in secret. Even talking about books I love feels dangerous, makes me anxious and tongue-tied. The fact that I teach English has not in the least resolved this.
But still, I have a fantasy about finding a book club in which my anxieties fall away: there’d be good snacks and a good view and a good deal of wine, and no one would mind if you showed up in your sweat pants, possibly even unshowered. There’d be two or three generations on hand, male and female, each with a ravaged copy of a great new book and no fear of having to sound smart when they talked about it. There would be so many of us that we would crowd the room and line up out the door till we were all filled with the temporary conviction that everyone in the world was like us. These, the great idle dreamers, the people who lounge for hours with books, lost to this world and committed to the other. That’s my club.