I had a gorgeous evening last night. I went to a reading group in Melbourne conducted by bibliotherapist, Sonya Tsakalakis.
The set up was simple: a handwritten sign announcing ‘Literary Salon,’ a couple of chairs placed together, a xerox copy of the short story, ‘The Garden Party’ by Katherine Mansfield, and four strangers.
What took place over the next hour and a half was beautiful.
First a short summary of the story: The Sheridan family is preparing to host a garden party. Laura, one of the teenage daughters, is excited and happily interacts with the workers hired to put up the marquee. She frets over the excessive order of lilies by her mother. She sinks her teeth into a delicious cream puff that is to be served to the guests. Suddenly into this idyllic day comes the news: a local man has been trampled and killed by a horse. Laura has the good grace to suggest that the party be stopped. After all the guests would walk right by the dead man’s house at the bottom of their path. But no one else agrees. Later Mrs. Sheridan sends Laura down to the dead man’s house with a basket of leftovers for the man’s family. Laura is brought in and shown the dead man’s corpse. She is unable to articulate what she feels, managing only: “Isn’t life…”
We took turns reading, stopping about every two pages to discuss. It flowed easily. Sonya deftly molded the evening around the written text and our conversation.
We chatted about what we thought of this comment, that nuance. We laughed. We discussed intimately what it is to be human in today’s world: How we don’t spend time mourning our lost ones. How very apropos the short story remains about poverty and the cluelessness of so many privileged people (I include myself). How we continue to try to distract young women from important issues by concentrating on their looks.
It was different to a book club where you’ve read the book and then get together to discuss. Often by then your first thoughts are forgotten. You are quick to judge. Sometimes the only real question is whether you liked the book or not. Yes, I quite liked it, you might murmur as you reached for the red wine. But what was different about this was that you read together, you remembered the sentences, you remembered your feelings.
I found the whole experience very soul-nurturing because as an author I tend to read too professionally. Either doing research or dissecting a book, wondering how did they do that. Thinking sometimes snootily, Is this really something that got published? Or more often, Wow I could never do this. I never turn off my professional eyes.
Which is sad because the main reason I became a writer is that I loved to read.
So it was good to relax into the story, to concentrate on the text, to fall deeply into the spell. No thoughts of who the author’s agent or publisher must be or any tricks of the trade. Just a long slow deep reading with new insights and conversation.
If you’re in Melbourne, check out Sonya’s website. You will never read the same way again.
painting: Charwomen in Theater (1946) Norman Rockwell (USA, 1894-1978)