Every day at least one woman comes into the library where I work to put some serious, unreadable tome on reserve, sighing, “I’m probably going to hate it but I have to read it for my book group.” Why do book groups keep assigning books that people dread reading? Sure, these books deal with important issues and provoke interesting discussions. But a good, insightful humor book can accomplish that too—and it’s so much more fun to read!

Next time your book group formulates its reading list, I suggest including Liza Donnelly’s When Do They Serve the Wine? The Folly, Flexibility and Fun of Being a Woman ( Chronicle Books, $19.95). It’s an enjoyable, conversation-sparking read that addresses a very important topic: what does it really mean, here and now, to be female? Donnelly, a staff cartoonist at The New Yorker, takes a sharp look at who we are and what is expected from us. (Everything!) The cartoons, grouped by decade, consider our lives from early childhood through old age, from “The First Kiss” to “Sex in Your Sixties,” from Barbie to Vaginal Lubricant. Other topics include Cleavage,  Hairstyles, Bad Dates, Menopause Basics, and Advice for Michelle Obama.

If an overall theme emerges from Donnelly’s work, it’s that however young or old we are, a woman always has something to be anxious about. Our looks. Our popularity. Our achievements (or lack thereof). Our  “rebellious body parts.” The humor, while sharply observed, is gentle. Donnelly won’t make you howl with laughter, but she’ll make you grin. Hers is the comedy of convention, addressing the gap between the expectations that our gender imposes on us and our lived realities. The media’s influence on our sense of self is a favorite target. (Three woman watch television together. One asks: “Why do I get this vague notion that something is always expected of us?“) Another favorite topic is negotiating stereotypes (Two little girls are at play. One says to the other: “My doll can be the pretty one and yours can watch her.“) There’s also plenty of fun, empowering material. (A female divorce lawyer says to her client: “I’ll need to ask you a number of questions about your former husband, hereafter called ‘son-of-a-bitch.’” )

Donnelly begins each section with a brief essay about the challenges and surprises that the decade in question held for her. A picture emerges of a smart, savvy woman whose desire to be “nice” is at odds with her anger at what women often have to put up with. She’s resolved this conflict by being a people-pleaser who expresses cultural criticism through her art. The reader will be impressed by both her wit and her insight. Here’s her take on the way our looks change as we age:

“I threw out the scale years ago, and now I want to toss the mirror. But I don’t need to. Although it has taken me fifty years, I know who I am now, wrinkles and all. The mirror doesn’t lie, but it can’t tell me everything.”

Donnelly (at right) herself appears to have it all: motherhood, a thriving career, and a loving “feminist husband” (fellow New Yorker cartoonist Michael Maslin). But it’s impossible to resent her. She comes across as the kind of woman who’d make a great best friend, funny as hell but kind and caring. You imagine that if you needed a shoulder to cry on, she’d drop everything to be there for you, find the right words to console you, bake you some fabulous cookies and even turn the whole thing into a cartoon that would give you perspective on the fact that your life ain’t really so bad.

Next time your book group chooses titles, why not add When Do They Serve the Wine? to your reading list? On the day it comes up for discussion, bring along a bottle (or two) of good wine, and be prepared to talk about what we wish construction workers would really say, when it feels just great to be a bitch at work, and whether or not a vibrator is the perfect bridal shower gift. If what follows isn’t one of the liveliest and most engaging discussions your group has ever had, I suggest finding another book group.

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  • Alisa April 2, 2011 at 7:17 pm

    I shared this with my book group too! What a great idea.

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  • Holly March 31, 2011 at 10:22 am

    Thanks for such a great selection. My book club is reading All Quiet on the Western Front next and yes I’m serious about that.
    I’m going to use When Do They Serve the Wine as my choice.