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Read 'em and rip 'em

By Saundra Amrhein
Published March 16, 2007


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Once a month the women gather on a weekday afternoon, leaving their cars parked along the street and sometimes hunching their shoulders against an afternoon drizzle.

They each hold something precious in their arms, pulling it in close to protect it from the rain.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, they've picked Florence Irving's house in Sun City Center. In the kitchen, they pour juice into paper cups and put cookies on paper plates. They settle into chairs in the sitting room.

Then they pull out their books, wipe off the raindrops and begin.

"In my notes I wrote that I didn't like his style of writing at all," offers Mary Pings.

This month's focus of Tea & Books is Martin Amis, a British literary giant in keeping with the women's usual selection of heavyweight authors.

The women, in their 70s and 80s and at least one in her 90s, are retired professionals, all members of the American Association of University Women.

More than anything else, they share a lifelong love affair with books.

It's a passion that has outlived careers and spouses and, for some, the stamina to handle other clubs on the community's busy social calendar.

It's the realization that no matter how many decades of teaching are behind them, no matter how long they've run libraries or raised children, they have so much left to discover.

"Books make the whole world come alive for me," says Sally Fox.

"It's a way for understanding myself and other people and how we should live our lives. I feel there's always something more to know and understand. We go from book to book to book, always searching."

Some afternoons they may be in Flannery O'Connor's old South, or in Thomas Mallon's 1920s Manhattan.

On the day with Martin Amis, it was clear some of the women hadn't enjoyed this one. Readers usually love or hate Amis, and this group was no exception.

They compare feedback from reviews, including the New Yorker, which called his latest book, House of Meetings - about the Soviet Union under Stalin - "old-fashioned psychological realism."

True to form, someone offers a biographical summary of the author and this time it's Janet Mayhew's turn. Each of the women has a chance to select authors, and during the meeting, they hash through all the writers' works, not just one book.

They talk about Amis' famous father, Kingsley, his troubled background, even his bad teeth.

They found Success too littered with a vulgarity. Time's Arrow - a backward-running book about a Nazi doctor - was too confusing. Amis' professed connection with novelist Saul Bellow was inexplicable.

Overall, he was a downer.

"I was so depressed afterward," says Gladys Bromberger.

Lively, friendly debate

Bromberger is one of the newer members. She joined a year ago after moving to Kings Point from Philadelphia. A former teacher, joining a book club was the first order of business, and she tracked down the group through the university women's association.

She likes the camaraderie and how the women are so comfortable with each other that they know about each other's children, but stay focused on the books rather than gossip.

The discussions get heated, but not personal. They've all lived through too much for that.

They find themselves reading authors they otherwise would never pick up.

"I think what he's done is remarkable in London Fields with the character of Keith," says Virginia Dalrymple, 86, who helped start the book club more than 20 years ago.

Books grabbed her imagination when she was a young girl, before the days of television, and never let go.

"Keith is just evil personified," says Dalrymple. "He comes into the house, and for no reason whatsoever, he slams his wife up against the door. His ambition is to be a darts champion and get on television, and he thinks that will be heaven on earth."

"Oh, no," Pings says softly, listening.

"He's horrible, but he's so horrible that it's just a powerful part of the story," Dalrymple continues.

"Do you enjoy reading that? I don't," Pings adds.

"I can't say I enjoyed it, but I was fascinated by it," Dalrymple responds.

A few other women agree and call his work intellectual, not aesthetic.

Pings holds her ground.

"I don't care what his themes are like, when I read a book, I want the beauty of the words. I really do," Pings says. "That's what I enjoy about a book, how well it's written."

Over the years, the women have tackled Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edwidge Danticat, Henry James and Joyce Carol Oates. The list of authors fills four columns and spills onto a second page. Many of the women typically are reading several other books at the same time.

On Amis, the conversation veers to his recent controversial comments about Muslim fundamentalists, and then to the women's thoughts on immigrant neighborhoods in England. Then to which immigrant groups assimilate more than others. And how the nearby Mexican families in Wimauma love their children. And how the kids always pick up English so quickly and want the same toys as the women's grandchildren.

Mary Ellen Thomas brings it back on point.

"Did anyone enjoy reading Martin Amis?" she asks.

"No!"

"I don't like him, but I admire him," Dalrymple says.

Always time for books

The women plan the next meeting in late February, when the selected author is J.M. Coetzee, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 2003.

It takes awhile to pick a date. They must schedule around bridge and a class on Mayan civilizations taught by one of the club members and attended by many of the women.

They swap books and talk of other authors they're reading. And then it's time to break up.

Some of them have other commitments, like reading for study groups on progressive Christianity and Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung.

It's never a dull moment for many. Dalrymple has scaled back a bit, though she takes a class on the role of medical epidemics in history. Still, her main focus is the book club.

"I would go to the book club if I had to go on a stretcher or in a wheelchair," she says.

When the club breaks up, the women bring their plates to the kitchen. They head back out into the rain, yelling goodbyes over their shoulders. Next time, they'll meet at Bromberger's house.

Saundra Amrhein can be reached at 661-2441 or amrhein@sptimes.com.

[Last modified March 15, 2007, 07:40:44]


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