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Men's Book Club Spurs Debate, Discussion--During Halftime

October 09, 2002|GENE WEINGARTEN | WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — I seldom accept speaking engagements, but I recently got an invitation I couldn't turn down. It was from the Men's Book Club of Charlottesville, Va.

Yes, you heard correctly, Oprah: a literary discussion group founded by, conducted by, and dedicated to the intellectual stimulation of ... men. I am sorry if this notion does not dovetail with some people's image of my gender as a parliament of louts, boors and vulgarians. Wake up and smell the Kafka, ladies.

Charlottesville is nearly a three-hour drive, so I needed to time it just right. The Men's Book Club conducts its meetings, start to finish, during halftime of "Monday Night Football."

I was there to discuss a book I wrote four years ago. The invitation was extended by the president of the club, who is, of course, a guy. I admit I was initially a little worried because his name is "Ashley." Worse, he had confessed that he was named after Ashley Wilkes, the character from "Gone With the Wind" who displayed all the manliness of a bra. (Ashley was played by an actor named "Leslie.")

But I was worrying for nothing. Ashley Schauer is all guy. As soon as I arrived, he explained the guiding principle behind the Men's Book Club's literary selections: Since discussion is statutorily limited to 15 minutes, he said, each book must be really thin--skimmable in its entirety "over two bowel movements, max." He's an ophthalmologist.

In fact, most of the 10 members of the club are doctors. This unnerved me a little, since my book, which is about medicine, is written by someone who knows nothing about medicine. Some stores actually shelve it with the medical books, which is a mistake. My book is a medical book only in the sense that "Where's Waldo?" is a detective novel. (One chapter is titled "Hiccups Can Mean Cancer.")

Our discussion began with stopwatch precision, literally at the sound of a gun. Halftime. Gastroenterologist David Balaban immediately presented me with the abstract of a medical paper documenting the tragic case of a man who, while undergoing a routine colonoscopy, exploded. The electric current from the colonoscopy snake had apparently ignited the man's interior gases, killing him as profoundly as if he had swallowed a cherry bomb. (The procedure has since been changed.) Surely, there is no solace to be found in such a tragic story, but I should point out that the victim was French.

I had expected to field questions about my book, but the discussion--conducted rapid-fire as people nervously eyed the TV screen for signs of a resumption of play--consisted mostly of doctors reading portions of the book aloud, and adding medical observations. For example, eye specialist Schauer confirmed my contention that when a person looks at a standing woman, the image is projected upside down on the retina, meaning her skirt falls over her head, exposing her underpants. Schauer then somehow extended this observation to a discussion of his favorite topic, the hazards of water balloons on the human eye. He produced an actual epidemiological report, comparing the kinetic energy in a water balloon launched by a slingshot with the kinetic energy of other potential eye hazards, including a champagne cork, a paintball, a Scud missile and the Hale-Bopp comet.

Jay Scott, a University of Virginia medical school administrator, reported on the recent case in the hospital's emergency room in which a head-injury victim arrived, conscious but with his head swathed in bandages. Doctors slowly unwrapped him, watching in horror as his brain meat kept peeling off and plopping onto the gurney. After a minute or two of this stomach-churning procedure, someone noticed hair under the meat. The victim's wife explained that she had heard you were supposed to apply a steak to a wound, but she'd only had ground round.

At this point someone yelled, "No fumble! He was down on contact!" and the meeting of the Charlottesville Men's Book Club was adjourned. From a literary standpoint, Oprah, I can report that the Patriots won, 30-14.

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