Category Archives: Ideas for Book Clubs

Book Club Travel Tales

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Cindy Hudson with her daughters.

I’m hearing more and more stories from book club members about the terrific lit trips, large and small, that their groups have taken.  I love it! So, I’m starting a new category for this blog: “Book Club Travel Tales,” where you can find ideas in one spot, over there in the right hand column.

In previous posts, for example, I’ve mentioned the travels and events of Go On Girl! Book Club.  Here’s a new addition to the list, a Q and A interview with Cindy Hudson of Portland Oregon.  She is the author of Book by Book: The Complete Guide to Creating Mother-Daughter Book Clubs and has a great blog on the same topic, MotherDaughterBookClub.com. Not surprisingly, she’s active in more than one book group and here she shares a few of their travel experiences.

What kind of trips or outings has your book club enjoyed?

Over the years, I’ve gone on several outings with my book groups. After one group read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which focuses on eating locally, we organized a wine tasting day with a potluck lunch focused on ingredients from a local farmers market. We talked to the winegrowers, sipped a bit of their wine and ate incredible food. We discussed what we had learned about eating locally as well as ideas we had for changing their food habits going forward. The pictures from that day show all of us with big smiles. The event was such a hit we knew that we’d be looking at other opportunities to take our group on the road at least once a year.”

We’ve had several movie events, too. We went to see the movie Millions when we read the book by Frank Cottrell Boyce, and we went to see The Secret Life of Bees when we read that book. Also, there were several weekends away that were not book themed, rather they were a chance for us all to get away together and have fun, and we also talked about the book we had read.

Why not just stay home and do your regular meeting?  Why go on an outing or trip? 

Going out as a group is not only fun, it helps you see a side of other members in your group that you don’t get to see in your regular meeting setting. I’ve gone on outings with my mother-daughter book clubs and in the reading group I’m in with my husband, and in each case, we aim for one or two what we call “field trips” a year.

Do these trips bring the members of your group closer together?   

I have found that there’s never enough time to socialize with everyone at book club. In only a few hours we have dinner, try to catch up with other members about what has happened in their lives in the last month or so, and discuss the book. When I go on outings or weekends away I treasure the relaxed atmosphere and the ability to really spend time one-on-one with others in the group. And there’s always a lot of laughing during group time.

Once, when I was on a weekend away with my mother-daughter book club, we started playing music after dinner and the moms began to dance. We all had a good laugh when the girls expressed surprise that their moms would want to dance. They found out we’re people too, and sometimes we just want to have fun.

Any tips or suggestions for people organizing book-related travel?

Make sure you have a good idea of budget before hand. You don’t want to plan something at a luxury hotel if some of the members of your group won’t be able to afford it. Also, if you do go away for a night or more, make sure there are plenty of opportunities for people to branch off and go on their own adventures as well as stay with the group.

Follow Cindy on Twitter at twitter.com/momdtrbookclub

 

Reading the Oscars

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Be sure to check out the L.A. Times great little “Literary Oscar Quiz” to get you primed for this year’s Oscars.  It’s always fun to read the book, then see the movie and it makes a great book group outing.

If you like the book/movie combo, you’ll and to (re)read one of my favorite books, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, now because the movie with Leonardo Di Caprio is coming out in May.  Will it be as good as the book?  How will it compare to the Robert Redford version? This Boz Luhrmann version certainly seems to have a harsher edge than the earlier movie. Check out the trailer.

Go on Girl! (Part Two): Ideas for Your Book Club

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Go On Girl! Book Club’s 2011 Author of the Year, Daniel Black, author of Perfect Peace.

I’m an advocate of reading and travel to bring friends together. Go On Girl! Book Club (see previous post) does this in quite a spectacular way. GOG is one of the largest national, non-profit reading organizations dedicated to supporting authors of the African Diaspora. For the past 20 years they have hosted an author awards weekend in a different location each year, usually with 150 to 250 members and guests in attendance.  The chapters in the host city plan and execute a weekend full of activities that include a mixer for GOG members and authors, meetings of the national board and executive committee and membership breakfasts. They also have panel discussions, book signings and tours of the host city.

Says GOG President Lynda Johnson, “Our members love interacting with the authors, having serious one-on-one discussions with them and being treated to sneak peeks of their upcoming novels.” It sounds like the authors enjoy it, too. Says Johnson, “Bebe Moore Campbell once said to us that she really appreciated her readers because the craft of writing is a solitary art and when you hear from people who’ve read your work you know you are appreciated.”

The high point of the weekend is the awards ceremony in which the group honors its Author of the Year, New Author of the Year, Life Achievement Awardees, and scholarship winners. Says Johnson, “Walter Mosley, Terry McMillan, Diane McKinney Whetstone, Sonia Sanchez, J. California Cooper, Daniel Black, Isabel Wilkerson, Stephen Carter, and Bebe Moore Campbell are among the literary luminaries that have attended our event to accept their awards. Our members look forward to this annual event so they can bond over books, meet their favorite authors and rekindle the cross-country friendships they’ve forged with each other. We stay connected throughout the year with a membership newsletter, chapter meetings and other gatherings.”

But if events of such magnitude aren’t for your group, GOG has some ideas to spice up your book club’s interaction and activities. For example, members get together to support each other for charity functions such as donating books to libraries and schools, reading to shut-ins and even donating books to women behind bars. Says Johnson, “Our members do so much around literature such as attending and hosting book signings, inviting authors to our book discussions and bringing the books to life such as preparing meals around the foods discussed in a book. For instance, we baked the cookies from the novel Orange Mint and Honey by Carleen Brice and listened to the music of singer Nina Simone, who is prominently featured in the story. We also visit the locations in which the books take place. Our chapters in the Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia areas visited Thomas Jefferson’s plantation, Monticello, when we read the historical novel, Sally Hemmings by Barbara Chase-Riboud.”

If your book club is looking for great African-American writers, check out the extensive list of the books GOGs have read over the past 21 years. Says Johnson, “Through the course of our book club’s existence we have discovered some amazing African-American writers and many writers who are struggling to get their work out there. What we as an organization would love to see is writers of color getting recognition on the very large literary landscape.”

Go On Girl! Book Club will host its 21st Annual Author Awards celebration from Friday, 2013-logo-header[1]May 31st to Sunday, June 2nd at the Sheraton Atlantic City Convention Center Hotel. The awards dinner on Saturday, June 1st will feature our 2012 winning authors, Marlon James, Author of the Year for The Book of Night Women and Karen Simpson, New Author of the Year for Act of Grace. Authors who have attended past awards dinners include, Walter Mosley, Terry McMillan, Diane McKinney Whetstone, Lawrence Hill, Jewell Parker Rhodes and many others. For more information and to purchase tickets to the awards dinner visit www.GoOnGirl.org/events.

Go on Girl! This is one inspiring book club. Part One.

While some book groups struggle to meet regularly or to get everyone to read the book goongirlbookclubbefore they meet, others take the reading group concept to a whole new level.

In the course of doing research for my upcoming book, Off the Beaten Page: The Best Trips for Lit Lovers, Book Groups, and Girls on Getaways, I was looking for book clubs that travel and do other interesting things together– beyond the typical meeting that includes book discussion, wine, and dessert, not necessarily in that order.  One of the most impressive groups I came across was the Go On Girl! Book Club.  They’re headquartered in New York but GOG has become a national organization with 30 chapters in the following 13 states.

Their mission: to encourage the literary pursuits of people of African descent. The group started with Lynda Johnson, Monique Greenwood, and Tracy Mitchell who all worked at Fairchild Publications as editors. Says Johnson, “Tracy and I were avid readers. She loved coming of age stories and I loved any and everything surrounding the Harlem Renaissance writers. Tracy and I were both reading the novel No Easy Place to Be by Steven Corbin and would discuss it over lunch. Monique heard our intense conversations and originally thought we were discussing real people. We told her she had to read the book; she did and joined our conversations. Based on our discussions Tracy suggested we get a small group of friends together and form a book club. It was during that first meeting that the foundation for GOG was set. Ironically, we had 12 women attend, all with different tastes in books.”

This formed Go On Girl! Book Club’s commitment to read 12 different genres a year, one for each month. They also decided to limit their group to 12 women to make for manageable book discussions. Eventually, various members of the group moved to other parts of the country and they established GOG chapters wherever they went, starting with Washington, D.C. and Chicago. They didn’t set out to form a national organization.  “Our growth happened very organically,” says Johnson.

But they eventually became women on a mission. “We chose to read writers from the African diaspora to support those authors and experience stories about ourselves. The publishing industry didn’t realize that a large black readership existed until the publication of Terry McMillan’s books. We quickly discovered so many wonderful black writers who weren’t getting recognition or support. We wanted to let them know that we realize they exist and are reading and discussing their books. We hosted book signings and readings for some of those authors and then decided to recognize them with our annual author awards weekend. We just wanted a platform for African American writers. There were so many great writers out there who we felt were following the tradition of Toni Morrison, James Baldwin and a host of literary writers from the Harlem Renaissance but not getting the recognition they needed. We felt we could do that for them as a book club and discuss and enjoy some great stories at the same time.”

Ultimately, GOG became a national, non-profit reading organization.  They give out scholarships to encourage writing of stories about the black experience. “We decided to give a scholarship to an aspiring writer studying literature/communications and an unpublished writer struggling to be read. And, if that’s not enough, for the last 20 years, the GOG chapters have come together in a different location each year, to connect with each other and to host author awards that have been attended by some of the luminaries of the literary world including Walter Mosely, Bebe Moore Campbell, Terry McMillan, and many others.

Impressed?  Read more about the Go On Girl! book club in my next post.

The American Stories Behind Downton Abbey

My book club is reading The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin this month.  It’s a fairly 852358-BK-1-lrglight read, but just right to get any fan of Downton Abbey primed for the launch of season three this Sunday, January 6, on PBS.

Americans have a long-standing fascination with the British aristocracy. For example, while millions of Londoners piled in around Buckingham Palace to enjoy the festivities surrounding Kate and William’s wedding in 2011, there were probably an equal number of Americans (clad in funny hats) who stayed up all night to watch all the pomp and romance of the royal wedding on TV. And, we’re totally hooked on Downton Abbey,  the story of  life in the Edwardian country house of the Crawley family and their cadre of servants that has become stratospherically popular, I mean Justin Bieber popular.   Through the American Heiress, and other books, most notably, Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers, American readers have a special connection to the Downton drama. Here’s why:

Before the fictional Cora became Downton’s Lady Crawley, she was the beautiful daughter of a dry-goods multimillionaire from Cincinnati. In the real world of the late 1800s, similarly wealthy American families, especially the newly rich who had yet to scratch out a place in Unknownoutrageously closed and rigid social world of this country’s wealthy elite, (the “500” of Mrs. Astor), looked across the pond to forge their reputations. The young women of these families became known as “buccaneers.” Marriage to a British aristocrat brought status to the social climbing wealthy Americans and their wealth brought an infusion of vital cash to the increasingly impoverished British aristocrats, who because of taxes and inheritance rules, were forced to cast a wide net to find relationships that could bring new wealth to support their estates. A win-win?  As you’ll see from the following book list, not always.

To Marry an English Lord, by Carol Wallace and Gail MacColl, offers an excellent nonfiction look at these buccaneers who inspired the Downton Abbey series. To-marry-an-English-Lord-for-web

The Gods of Newport by John Jakesabout life among the wealthy in Gilded Age Newport, Rhode Island.

Amanda Mackenzie Stuart, Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age. The non-fiction story of how Consuelo Vanderbilt was forced  into a loveless marriage to the Duke of Marlborough.

Also, any of Edith Wharton’s other classics such as The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth and The Reef, offer a great look at life among America’s Gilded Age elite.

Literary Death Match: A Cerebral Slugfest

I’m heading over to the Literary Death Match (LDM) tonight, which sounds like some sort of mixed martial arts combat. But, there will be no Junior dos Santos, Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva or other UFC luminaries at tonight’s competition at the Nomad World Pub in Minneapolis. (I’m hoping to see some beefcake, but keeping my expectations low.) Despite its violent-sounding name, LDM is a comedic/literary competition that has made its way around the globe and regularly stops in the Twin Cities. These are great events for book clubs to attend together. Four authors read something they’ve written and three literarily (is that a word?)-inclined judges offer their comments on each reading, with an emphasis on humor rather than violence, though there is sometimes beer-fueled mayhem as the audience votes on the winner. Everyone goes home happy—no bruises, even to their egos.

Tonight’s readers include L.A. Times-award-winning young-adult novelist Pete Hautman (The Big Crunch and The Obsidian Blade), Minnesota Public Radio Electric Arc Radio‘s Stephanie Wilbur Ash, poet and author Juliet Patterson (author of Truant Lover) and poet-musician Jeffrey Skemp (author of Spent). The judges: Jamaican native Marlon James (author of The Book Of Night Women and John Crow’s Devil), cartoonist and host of the Lutefisk Sushi podcast Danno Klonowski, and former journalist turned sci-fiction writer Dennis Cass.

LDM creator and host Todd Zuniga works as hard as any fight promoter to put these shows together and hopes eventually to bring LDM to television.  He says, “Literary Death Match started because there was a real need to evolve literary events beyond a bar reading where Reader 1 would read for 12 minutes beyond the time limit, Reader 2 would read a slice-of-life blog entry they wrote earlier that day and Reader 3 would blow everyone’s mind. We wanted an event where everyone was Reader 3. So, we went around and asked literary entities and asked them to send us someone to represent them. Secondly, we wanted to seamlessly integrate comedy into a literary night, and that’s where the judges come in — regardless if the story was about a bad day at work, or surviving cancer.”

Todd shares my passion for making reading a way to create community and sees a trend toward people seeking entertainment and social connection through activities that exercise a bit of brainpower like LDM, a cerebral form of extreme cage fighting. He says, “LDM is a highly intellectual event, but we’re also zany and love bolts of silliness. I’m my mother’s son, so I want everyone in the room to feel good after it’s done. And what’s better than having a real conversation with someone fantastic? Our goal is to get people to read, and to keep helping people to understand that books aren’t always a solitary, lonely affair. We want to fill the room with the smartest, kindest, most fascinating people we can find. So, after the event they can talk about Etgar Keret’s Suddenly a Knock at the Door before they talk about the latest episode of Mad Men or Breaking Bad.”

Um, I have to figure out who Etgar Keret is before I can join that conversation, but I am looking forward to watching a few rounds of literary pugilism. Kudos to The Loft Literary Center for sponsoring this event.

Book Club When You Haven't Read the Book

I just ran across a great post from Jeff O’Neal on the blog “Book Riot.”  It’s called “7 Ways to Fake it at Book Club.”  That title cracked me up because at some point just about everyone in a book group has had the problem of not having read the book in time for the meeting.

It seemed a particularly pertinent topic because my book club just read Salmon Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, which is a slog, to say the least.  Even the person hosting the group didn’t finish it.  It’s a great book, won many awards, and Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Rushdie (urging Muslims to kill the author) because the Ayatollah found the book blasphemous. The Satanic Verses is full of symbolism, dreams, commentary on the life of immigrants and much more, so it seemed like a great idea when we were choosing books. Still, for most people, it turned out to be a dense book that’s too easily put aside for all the activities of everyday life.

We could have used some of O’Neal’s tips, which include: read the first seven and the last seven pages, be bold and ask the first question, things like, “So, what did everyone else think of the book?” I particularly admire strategy five, “Strategic Proximal Absence,” That means,

When the conversation turns from pre-game chatter to direct discussion of the book, get up and go find something to do in the kitchen, but keep an ear out. Don’t stay in there for an hour, just wait until someone says something you can glom onto. Rush in like you didn’t want to miss this part and ask for a recap. This should give you time to come up with a quick something to say. Plus, your wine will be topped off.

To his suggestions, I’d add: think of other books with similar themes that you have read.  It always seems smart to compare and contrast; it sounds like you know what you’re talking about.

I’m in two book clubs and both are pretty serious about what we read. But, one reason we’ve been together for years and years is that we have an understanding that everyone won’t have read the entire book every time. In The Satanic Verses case, we all admitted that we hadn’t finished it. With that admission, we found common ground in discussing why it was difficult to get through.  And, with a bit of research on Rushdie, the fatwa, and some help from Spark Notes, we had a great discussion of the book without having read it–not quite as good as the real thing, but close.  …. And we all had our wine topped off.

Beer and Books in Wisconsin

The Bookmobile headed for Wisconsin.

Mark Twain said, “I have found out that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.”  One of my book clubs travels fairly often, usually on short jaunts to members’ cabins, and we’ve found out that we like each other a lot, even with the extra large dose of “togetherness” that comes with group travel.

Last week ten of us piled into a 33-foot R.V. and drove to Three Lakes, Wisconsin. That’s about five hours from Minneapolis, and not far from Rhinelander, home of a mythical creature called a Hodag.  We stayed at a member’s cabin there, using the R.V. as an extra bedroom.  We used the opportunity to plan our reading list for the coming year (check it out below) and to discuss a book that takes place, in part, in Wisconsin, Wallace Stegner’s classic, Crossing to Safety.

Though we try to retain a bookish façade, I have to admit that much of our time was

Jake's provides most of the things one needs on vacation.

spent on the activities for which Wisconsin is famous, with Jake’s Bar at the center of intellectual pursuits such as darts and pool, beer and cheese curds.  We just call it “promoting literacy.”

The List

Driftless — David Rhodes

In Caddis Wood — Mary Rockcastle

Breakfast at Tiffany’s —Truman Capote

Cutting for Stone
— Abraham Verghese

The Postmistress
—Sarah Blake

The Paris Wife —Paula McLain

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks —Rebecca Skloot

The Irresistible Henry House —Lisa Grunwald

Unbroken
—Laura Hillenbrand.

The Language of Flowers —Vanessa Diffenbaugh

My Nest
Isn’t Empty, It Just Has More Closet Space —Lisa Scottoline

Guns and Book Clubs: What's the Connection?

I laughed this week when I heard a story on National Public Radio about how gun

Women have been gun enthusiasts since the days of Annie Oakley, but I'm intrigued by the idea of a book club at the shooting range.

makers have “set their sights” on female buyers and that women make up a growing percentage of gun owners.  One of the women they interviewed goes to the shooting range—with her book club.  One wonders what they could be reading to inspire gun training… self –empowerment books? Violent books about women being attacked? Westerns?

I have to admit I’ve never shot a gun myself, but I don’t have any objection to gun training and I would go to a gun range if someone really wanted me to go with them, just for the experience of it. Moreover, I don’t think gun ownership certainly should be the exclusive domain of men, but that story really piqued my curiosity.  Why would a book club go to a shooting range?

That prompted me to go on line for a little investigation and of course it led me to a huge array of books on the topic of women and guns, not to mention this great photo of the Jane Austin Book and Gun Club.

My book club(s) have gone to movies, dinner, cabin weekends, spas and all sorts of jaunts together.  I spoke with one woman whose book club goes on a fishing trip every year, but I haven’t heard about shooting together.  Guns and books seem such an unlikely pairing.  I know that some book groups have difficulty keeping their discussions under control and because one or two members tend to dominate the discussion.  Or, they may disagree about what book to choose or stray from the discussion too often.  Packin’ heat might be one way to keep them in line.

A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers' Houses

I just finished reading A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses, a tour of the homes of writers ranging from Hemingway to Poe to Langston Hughes by writer and English professor Anne TrubekIn this funny and very insightful book, Trubek examines the lure of writers’ homes for readers and for herself.  And a big draw it is; she says there are about seventy-three writers houses open to the public in the U.S. and hundred of thousands of people visit them annually, 60,000 a year to Mark Twain’s house in Hartford alone. But, such pilgrimages aren’t always very satisfying. She says

Writers’ house museums expose the heartbreaking gap between writers and readers. Part of the pull of a writer’s house is the desire to get as close as possible to the precise, generative, “Aha!” But we can never get there….Going to a writer’s house is a fool’s errand. We will never find our favorite characters or admired techniques within these houses; we can’t join Huck on the raft or experience Faulkner’s stream of consciousness. We can only walk through empty rooms full of pitchers and paintings and stoves.”

But A Skeptic’s Guide is entertaining precisely because, for Trubek the houses always come up short, which she describes in a pleasantly un-snarky way.  For example, visitors and tour guides often seem to confuse the idea that a house was where the writer lived and not where the fictional characters like Huck Finn or Jo in Little Women lived.  The furniture, papers and other items in the houses are often not those that belonged to the writer, but are things the curator added willy-nilly.  Edith Wharton’s home, The Mount, is decorated as a modern-day show house, computer and all.   Most houses seem to have the same array of merchandise in the gift shop.

I agree with her.  I’ve never really seen the lure of an author’s homes as some way to commune with the departed genius or magically attain the writer’s magic for my own use.  However, I’m fascinated with the sense of place that literature creates.  When I read about Huck Finn, it makes me want to not visit Twain’s Hannibal home but rather to hop in a boat and travel down the Mississippi. For a Yankee like me, it’s exciting to visit the Carolina lowcountry I’ve read about in books such as Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides or The Water is Wide.  I get a better understanding of the real people who live there as well as their history and the geography that has shaped it.

Ultimately, the essence of the writer isn’t in the house, it’s in the words. Trubeck concludes, “[Langston] Hughes knew that …the world of the imagination would offer him more than the city, more than a house.”