Julie Schumacher and the unsinkable power of words


Some teenagers get far more than they bargained for when they sign up for a mother-daughter book club, having at first thought of it as a way to ease the drudgery of a school-assigned summer reading list.

"The Unbearable Book Club for Unsinkable Girls," a teen novel by St. Paul-based writer, Julie Schumacher, reads like an adventure story, but at its heart it is about the power of words.

In the first pages, 15-year-old Adrienne Haus learns she is not the only one unhappy with her mother's plan to get a jump start on the fall's AP English class. Adrienne reads the first book as she basks by the side of the city swimming pool and meets another club member, named Ceecee.

"Don't you think we're too old for this?" she said.

"I wasn't sure she was talking to me: I wasn't the sort of person Ceecee Christiansen usually talked to. The two of us chatting? It was like a dolphin hanging out with a squirrel."

Ceecee declares she has no intention of reading any of the assigned novels. Adrienne the book-lover is appalled. The worldly Ceecee decides her summer project will be to bust the awkward Adrienne from out of her shell. The bookworm finds herself in increasingly uncomfortable, and dangerous situations.

Schumacher admits the idea for the novel wasn't hers. For that reason, she bristled when her editor suggested it. And then she changed her mind.

"I thought, 'OK, I'll do my version of a mother daughter book club.'"Schumacher said.

She decided it to bend the idea a little and fill it with tension. Schumacher enjoys writing about girls of this age and how they deal with the burden of defining themselves. She also wanted it be about what books can become in people's lives. For example, Adrienne, a teenager, is trying to work out where she fits in the world, Schumacher said.

"Because she doesn't really understand who she is and she's very porous and open to influences, imagines herself often to be often the main characters in the stories that she reads," Schumacher said. "Whereas Ceecee is much more sure of herself and less open to influence."

The teenage members of the club are rounded out by Jill, who works the concession stand at the pool, and the mysterious Wallis, who signed up herself and whose mother never seems available for meetings. They begin by reading "The Yellow Wallpaper," "The House of Mango Street" and "Frankenstein." The books launch conversations which become uncomfortable or even disturbing.

"They read, among other books, "The Left Hand of Darkness" which is a classic sci-fi book by Ursula le Guin about a planet on which people swing back and forth from male to female," Schumacher said. "And they get kind of salacious about it. They make jokes about it. But they also are at the age where I think they are considering sexuality."

The mothers who attend the book club bring their own tensions, as well.

Schumacher hopes both booklovers and reluctant readers will get something out of the novel. Schumacher, who teaches creative writing at the University of Minnesota, will launch "The Unbearable Book Club for Unsinkable Girls" at 7 p.m. today at Common Good Books, 38 S Snelling Ave., in St Paul.

Currently at work on a short story collection about mothers and daughters aimed at adults, Schumacher says she doesn't change her style much when writing for her different audiences because she believes the line between them is increasingly blurred. She points out the number of adults reading books aimed at youngsters, like the Harry Potter and Hunger Games novels.

"I think Harry Potter sort of broke that line down," Schumacher said.

She believes it's all for the better because it means more people are reading.

Her reading will also be a opportunity to pass along what may be a piece of profound literary wisdom. She calls it the "rule of 3,000." It's an idea she gives to Wallis in the book, but it's something she realized while considering her own reading habits.

"If I read a book a week, which I generally do, and you average that to 50 books per year over a reading lifetime of 60 years, between ages 20 and 80 — that's 3,000 books," she said. "And all you get in your whole life, if you are reading a book a week, is 3,000. So people always say what book would you take with you to a desert island? I think, no, the better metaphor is if you walk into Wilson Library on the U of M campus, which has millions of volumes, which 3,000 do you want?"

And that is why Schumacher says she is now less likely to stick with books she doesn't like, because 3,000 isn't a very big number.

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