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Notes on a Successful Book Club

June 11, 2014 | by

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Detail from the first-edition hardcover jacket of Judith Rossner’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar.

Back when I worked in retail, a friend and I whiled away our breaks and slow days with what we called, unofficially, the Lurid Book Club. Admissions standards were straightforward: to be considered, a book had to be lurid. Accordingly, we read Flowers in the Attic, Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the People’s Temple, Peyton Place, Savage Girls and Wild Boys: A History of Feral Children, and Escape, described by its publisher as “the dramatic first-person account of life inside an ultra-fundamentalist American religious sect, and one woman’s courageous flight to freedom with her eight children.” (We told a customer about the LBC and she contributed her copy of Anne Rice’s Claiming of Sleeping Beauty, which, besides being not at all what the book club was about, was tedious in the extreme.)

Unlike many book clubs, it was an unqualified success. It was impossible to not do the reading: we could not put these books down. But the social element was essential, too; the shared horror of the experience made it bearable. I can’t call it a guilty pleasure, because it wasn’t exactly pleasurable. I’m sure this plays into something dark in the human soul—or at least mine. But it was cathartic and educational. I highly recommend it.

If you should start your own Lurid Book Club, may I suggest the oeuvre of Judith Rossner? She’s best known for Looking for Mr. Goodbar, the 1975 novel (and subsequent film) that fictionalized the brutal murder of Roseann Quinn. This story—with its seedy singles-bar settings, its teacher-of-deaf-children-by-day, rough-sex-addict-by-night protagonist, and its violent denouement—is quite lurid enough. But that’s just for starters.

I ran across Rossner’s Any Minute I Can Split (about a woman who joins a commune) far too young, and after that I devoured August (about a troubled woman’s relationship with her equally troubled therapist) because my grandparents for some reason had both of them. On the subject of two of her other novels, I can do no better than Wikipedia:

In 1977, Rossner published Attachments, a story about a pair of friends who marry conjoined twins. Attachments was followed by Emmeline, the story of a fourteen-year-old farm girl who gets a factory job to support her impoverished family, is seduced and bears a child taken from her, whom unbeknownst to her she marries two decades later.

Essential, I would argue, to any comprehensive LBC syllabus. If your tastes run to the classics, I would also recommend Leave Her to Heaven, The Best of Everything, and, of course, the entire Jacqueline Susann catalogue.

I miss the Lurid Book Club—maybe it’s time to revive it. So many potential titles continue to beckon: In Bed with Gore Vidal; Jay’s Journal; Driving the Saudis: A Chauffeur’s Tale of the World’s Richest Princesses (plus their servants, nannies, and one royal hairdresser). Yes, there are better books in the world, books that I need and want to read. But to borrow from of Valley of the Dolls, “Never judge anyone by another’s opinions. We all have different sides that we show to different people.”  

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