Today I attended a discussion of The Mistress of Spices, the book taken up as the first in Oakland's "One City, One Book" program. This was one of ten book discussions being held all over Oakland.
This was one was held at the Piedmont Avenue Branch Library, a tiny little building on 41st St., two doors down from the apartment building in which I lived from 1997 to 2003. I was afraid that this library was so small that it would be overwhelmed with people. I needn't have worried. All of six people showed up, other than the moderator (a Main Library reference librarian). I was the youngest person present by a decade, I suspect, and the only male.
Literary criticism is not one of my great strengths, so I was quite prepared to be quiet and not say anything. I didn't get that opportunity. Not only were there only six other people there, but four of them hadn't read the book. What's the point of going to a book discussion if you haven't read the book? I can only imagine that the enjoyment of the book would have been lessened by giving away plot points.
Anyway, although I tried not to talk too much, with only two other people there who knew the book I couldn't really be quiet and let those with a clue speak. Oh well.
Even though the turnout was disappointing, I'm glad I read the book and showed up. Magical-realist novels aren't something I normally pick up for myself. I did read One Hundred Years of Solitude (doesn't its Spanish title, Cien años de soledad, have much better rhythm?) in college, eighteen years ago, and later The Octopus, which although written before the term was coined, does seem to have some elements of magic realism to it.
Yet it's good, once in a while, to expand one's boundaries, and the idea of reading the same book as others in your community has a lot of appeal. And, given that the book is set in Oakland and explores themes of cultural assimilation, it's certainly a good choice for the program, even if I don't regret not attending some of the cultural events ("The Art of the Sari: Indian clothing demystified at this hands-on workshop for families and kids"). Let's see what book they pick next year. I wonder if I can get them to read The Death and Life of Great American Cities?
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