Category Archives: Ideas for Book Clubs

Does this hoop skirt make my butt look big? "Gone With the Wind" at 75

Despite its political incorrectness and my yankee heritage, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind is one of my favorite books. It was published 75 years ago–it seems like only yesterday.  Check out National Public Radio’s terrific articles and reports about the book’s 75th anniversary. This occasion makes the book a great choice for book clubs–plenty new to talk about. And, it’s the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, so it’s timely. Be sure to read Pat Conroy’s chapter about Gone With the Wind in his book My Reading Life.

I may be a fan of the book, but I’m nowhere near as devoted as a group of hard-core GWTW fans called the Windies who the New York Times describes as “so ardent that recreating the burning of Atlanta in an airport hotel banquet room is not out of the question.”  I can’t join them.  It’s just too hot for a hoop skirt.

Bikes and Books Tour of Minneapolis

The Twin Cities are regularly rated among the most literary cities in the country
(check out Flavorwire‘s pairing of top cities and books set in them) and Minneapolis has been voted the best biking city in America for the last two years.  So it makes sense to put the two together for a two-wheel tour of some of Minneapolis’ outstanding independent bookstores as well as its famous Chain of Lakes.  FYI, for anyone not familiar with this area of Minneapolis, we’re talking flat, paved bikes-only paths, great for kids and anyone who may not be Tour-de-France-fit.

Start out in the city’s Uptown neighborhood, home of some of Minneapolis’ most fun bars and restaurants, as proven by the continual discussion of noise regulations for the area at city council meetings.  It’s also the home of Magers and Quinn on Hennepin Avenue, the city’s largest independent bookseller which bills itself as “A bounty of the world’s best books assembled by biblioholic booksellers.”  This is a place that will make even the most dedicated e-book reader stow the tech and stock up on print.  It has that cozy independent bookstore feel and stacks you could wander for hours. They have everything, new, used (deals!), beautiful antique volumes and first editions…so bring your backpack.  And, if they don’t have a book you’re looking for, they’ll track it down and order it for you.  It’s also a good idea to get on their mailing list for author appearances and reading ideas.

If you haven’t come equipped, trot around the corner to Calhoun Bike Rentals on Lake Street and rent a bike for the rest of your journey.   They also offer bike tours of some of the most interesting areas of Minneapolis.

The Tin Fish restaurant in the Lake Calhoun Boat Pavillion makes a great place to stoke up for lunch. Then start pedaling.  The Chain of Lakes is part of the Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway.  Head south along the east side of Lake Calhoun and on down to Lake Harriet.

A short side trip from Lake Harriett is Wild Rumpus Books a fantastic children’s bookstore that features, in addition to books, live animals and a tiny front door for children to enter through.

Head back to Lake Harriet and north again to Lake Calhoun, Lake of the Isles and on to Birchbark Books and Native Arts in the lovely, leafy Kenwood neighborhood.  It’s one of my favorite bookstores (see my previous post) with a special emphasis on Native American literature.  The staff and owner, novelist Louise Erdrich, carefully choose the books here and handwritten notes offer insight into books for browsers.  Books aside, any store with a confessional and dogs on the premises is good for the soul. You’ll need a little nosh to sustain you as you retrace your path back to Uptown.  Stop next door at the Kenwood Café.

Many bibliophiles make a point of hitting independent bookstores such as these whenever they travel.  To that end, IndieBound has an Indie Store finder that helps readers find indie booksellers just about anywhere.  For more on bookstore tourism, take a look at GalleyCat and Bookstore Tourism.

Read the Book, Take the Trip

Literature lovers have used books to inspire their travels since the nineteenth

Twilight fans are trekking to Forks, Washington

century when they traveled around England to contemplate the sites that writers had written in or about, traversing imaginary literary territories such as “Dickens’s London” or “Hardy’s Wessex.” While much has changed on the literary scene since then, literary tourism is stronger than ever as the number of tours based on the Harry Potter novels, Eat, Pray Love, the Da Vinci Code and Under the Tuscan Sun have proven.  More recently, Stieg Larsson’s trilogy has fueled a tourism boom in Stockholm and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series has put Forks, Washington, on the map for travelers. But you don’t have to travel to Bali in the footsteps of Elizabeth Gilbert to take a “lit trip.”

“You just need to pick a destination or a topic and find a book to match,” says Valerie Van Kooten.  Van Kooten is an instructor at Central College in Pella, Iowa and an avid literary traveler.  She approached a local independent bookseller, The Book Vault in Oskaloosa, Iowa, about coordinating a traveling book club.  Through the Book Vault (so named because it’s located in an old bank building) she assembles book-based trips that range from close-to-home to cross-country. For example, in September a group read Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War of the the Soul of America by Fergus M. Bordewich and Mary Kay Risks’ Escape on the Pearl.  In October, they traveled to historic underground railroad “stations” in Iowa.  No matter how great the book, there’s nothing like actually standing in a tiny space meant to hide a runaway slave to drive home the runaways’ experience. Next up on the traveling book club itinerary: a tour of haunted Iowa based on a book of the same name; a trip to Franklin, Tennessee, for tour of Carnton Plantation with The Widow of the South author, Robert Hicks, a pilgrimage to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie sites, and a jaunt to Seattle and Forks, Washington, to get a real-life view of the landscape in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga.

There’s been a lot of discussion in the press lately, most recently in The New York Times, about the ways in which independent bookstores are trying to retain their customers with “extras” such as coffee bars, wine bars and toy sections. Whether it’s a marketing tool or not, literary travel seems like the perfect means for independent booksellers to engage their readers in a special way, which is something they always try to do. “After I put down a book,” says Van Kooten, “I wonder what the place looks like, what the people there are like.  It’s an incomplete experience.” Reading-related travel, she says, completes the picture. Contact her at to find out more.

Even if you don’t live near Oskaloosa, check out the Book Vault’s terrific newsletter. It has synopses of books that look like great book club fare.

Great Gifts for Literary Travelers: From the Material to the Ethereal

The hottest gift for anyone who reads this year is an e-reader, be it Kindle, nook, iPad or others.  I’ll never give up printed books completely, but I’m sure to succumb to an electronic version for a lot of reasons.  If you travel a lot, you can load up on books to take with you without needing an extra suitcase to carry them all. An electronic reader is an even greater benefit if you travel to places where books in English are few and far between.  I’m leaning toward that new color version of the nook at Barnes & Noble, partly because that nice nook sales person greets me so enthusiastically every time I go to Barnes & Noble, which is a lot.

Yet, there’s a huge array of alternative and less expensive gifts for your favorite reader/traveler. At the other end of the spectrum from e-readers, offers a wonderful array of, as they say, “Tools for Serious Readers.” They have a great assortment of bookends. I’m particularly partial to the Winston Churchill Pig bookend inscribed with his quote:
“I like pigs: cats look down on human beings, dogs look up to them, but pigs just treat us as their equals.”

A tenement isn’t the first place you think of for buying Christmas gifts, but I got an “I Read Banned Books” bracelet at the Tenement Museum in New York City a while back and every reader I know comments on it. Also, declaring that I read banned books makes me feel like a rebel.

A lot of stores are selling really cute Kate Spade “Library Books” and “World Traveler” mugs.  You can find them online or at Macy’s, Bloomingdales and other places. Pop that together with a pound of coffee or some fancy tea and your “giftee” can settle in for a good read.

Magellan’ has a huge array of gadgets, gear and clothing for travelers.   Check out the book 1,000 Places to Go Before You Die and its accompanying travel journal.  Or, conversely, 100 Places Not to Go Before You Die.

Finally, if your goal is a gift for the greater good, give a copy of a book paired with a donation, for example Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn’s book  Half the Sky with a donation to one of the many charities on the Half the Sky Movement Web site.

Bundle a book about Haiti such as Isabelle Allende’s novel Island Beneath the Sea or Tracy Kidder’s non-fiction Mountains Beyond Mountains about Dr. Paul Farmer’s work in Haiti with a contribution to Farmer’s organization, Partners in Health. Or, Dr. Greg Mortinson’s book Three Cups of Tea (a lot of book club people have already read this) or his newer book Stones into Schools pairs well with a donation to his non-profit foundation, the Central Asia Institute.  He also has a children’s book called Listen to the Wind. Take a look at the video about the latter book and his work in Afghanistan.


If You Love Your Books, Set Them Free

I usually think about books and travel, not books that travel. However, I’ve been looking at a Web site called BookCrossing which offers what looks like a useful option for people like me who must periodically purge their piles of books to keep from being featured in an episode of that “Hoarders” show on A&E.

This site allows you to register the books you want to pass on. You put a label in each book with a BookCrossing code and then release it in a variety of ways. You can pass it on to someone you know or send it to a fellow BookCrosser who is looking for that book. You can take the book(s) to a designated “Crossing Site.”  For example, in the Minneapolis area where I live, there are 41 books are floating around, free for the taking, at sites such as coffee shops, a Lutheran church, Eden Prairie Mall, and a Wells Fargo Bank office. Or you can release the book “into the wild,” that is, just lay it around somewhere. Ideally the person who picks it up will see the label, go to the Web site, and register where the book is and who has it. You can also request book that you’re looking for and see what happens.

I’m very big on supporting bookstores and I use the library all the time. Yet, I find this idea intriguing, a way to share books and make contact with fellow readers all over the world, and better than “abandoning” my books at Goodwill or a used book store. (For defenders of the printed book: This is one of the things that paper books can do that e-books can’t.) I haven’t tried Book Crossing yet, but it would be interesting to set up a place to leave books with specific people in mind—children, English language learners, homeless people, moms, soldiers.

It seems like you have to be fairly motivated to get involved in all this, but apparently quite a few people find it worth the effort. The site reports 850,000 active BookCrossers and almost seven million registered books traveling around 130 countries. As one user said, “I can’t wait to see where the books I have read go… to see where the ones I discover are from… (it’s like being on a continual treasure hunt!).

I'm Not Enjoying This Book–How Many Pages to Read Before You Quit

I just ran across the answer to a question that people in my book club regularly ask, “I’m not enjoying this book.  How much should I read to give it a fair chance before I toss it aside and take up a book I really like?” So many books, so little time.

The answer is Book Lust Author Nancy Pearl‘s Rule of Fifty. She says: “People frequently ask me how many pages they should give a book before they give up on it. In response to that question, I came up with my “rule of fifty,” which is based on the shortness of time and the immensity of the world of books.  If you’re fifty years of age or younger, give a book fifty pages before you decide to commit to reading it or give it up.  If you’re over fifty, which is when time gets even shorter, subtract your age from 100—the result is the number of pages you should read before making your decision to stay with it or quit.  Since that number gets smaller and smaller as we get older and older, our big reward is that when we turn 100, we can judge a book by its cover!”

Another suggestion:  start skimming.  At least you can participate in conversation about the book.  I just did that with Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian.  It’s a vampire story, so you’d think it would hold one’s attention, but I it so convoluted, long, and full of explanatory letters, I became very impatient.

Or, take the book chunk at a time.  I just started thumbing through the gigantic Autobiography of Mark Twain which is less narrative and more bits, pieces and reflections.  It gives great insight into Twain’s character and I’m going to be quoting from it a lot.  I’m prone to stick with this volume because hefting it gives me enough exercise to forego the gym.  My aching biceps.


A Virtual Concierge—I Need That!

I wish I could find a Jen Knoch everywhere I travel.  It’s easy to find travel agents, hotel concierges, and corporate event planners galore who can offer some piece of travel planning, but it’s seldom information that’s very customized or personal. Consequently, I spend a lot of time talking to friends to get their tips and pouring over sites like TripAdvisor. I’ve had great experiences with travel planners for big trips, groups like Costa Rica Expeditions or the Blue Men of Morocco, for example, but what if you’re an individual, family or a book group traveling to someplace like the Twin Cities or Chicago or Seattle?

Knoch’s Radar Virtual Concierge Services, which caters to Twin Cities experiences, offers customized suggestions, based on the client’s needs and it’s affordable for “regular” people.  She says, “My sweet spot is the locally owned businesses that do tend to be more unique, under-the-radar and neighborhood type places that typically aren’t known to corporate event managers, hotel concierges, and travel agents.  They tend to focus more on the obvious, larger venues, well-known, chains, etc. An individual, a couple, a group, a family looking for an adventure in the Twin Cities whether they live here or are visiting, are my absolute perfect clients!  There is so much to do here and much of that is ‘unknown’ and I get my kicks out of blowing people away with the greatness of these cities from dining to music to retail to all-things culture.” Radar’s service is offered on a one time, weekend, annual or event-based basis, with the fees to match, starting at $15. I have yet to find a comparable service in other markets.  Do they exist?

One of Knoch’s favorite “bookish” spots in the Twin Cities: Wild Rumpus. It’s one of my favorites, too, and I’ve missed going there now that my boys are grown.  So, trolling their Web site, I was delighted to discover that they have an adults-only book club and, best of all, a remedial book club for adults who missed or want to revisit some of the classics of children’s literature. The store’s animal hosts alone make it worth a trip.

Books, Bars, and Reinventing the Book Club

I went to Books & Bars Tuesday night in Minneapolis at the Bryant Lake Bowl to
experience a fresh take on the traditional reading group, billed as “not your mother’s book club.” I went alone, but my visit confirmed why Msp.St.Paul magazine ranked Books & Bars as one of the best places for a newcomer to the Twin Cities to visit. I chatted it up with the people around me, all very hip and Uptown-looking and all very welcoming to a newbie.

The place was packed and with 90 or so people who discussed To Kill a Mockingbird with beer-fueled gusto—everything from the civil rights movement and the book’s relevance 40 years after its publication, to women’s roles, Atticus Finch’s parenting skills, and why we love Boo Radley. There were quite a few enthusiastic and thoughtful English teachers in the group and the conversation was free-wheeling. My favorite comment of the night was from a guy who said the best part of the book was when Atticus “shot that dog.”

The genial Jeff Kamin (henceforward, Genial Jeff in my mind) does a great job as the group’s host/facilitator/comedian. He alternately encourages participation from those who haven’t spoken, keeps the talkative from monopolizing the conversation, and injects new points of discussion.  He also tempers conflicting points of view with a little humor—skills I hope to emulate when my relatives gather during the upcoming holidays.

I asked Kamin why he thinks Books & Bars has been so successful.  He explains, “People like to read books, drink cheap beer ($2 Surly/$3 Fulton) and publicly express their opinions. And if they don’t want to talk, they enjoy hearing others talk about what they’ve read. It’s always a lot of fun. I do my best to keep everyone entertained and informed. People like to get out with like-minded types. The books have to be good, or at least discussion-worthy, but ultimately I think people come for the other people. They want to connect. And they want to laugh.”

For many, such face-to-face “networking” over a common topic is a welcome respite from the online social networking world. He says, “We have over 1000 fans on Facebook and almost as many newsletter subscribers. As much as I love to tweet and update my status and get a good on-line forum discussion going, nothing can compare to sharing a table, a meal, raising a glass with a friend and looking them in the eyes when you make fun of them. And hearing the agreeing laughter of the others around him.”

Another reason for the group’s success (it has expanded to twice-monthly and two locations) may be the mix of people, which is quite a departure from “your mother’s book club.” A surprisingly high number of men attend Books & Bars. The crowd is usually about 60/40 female to male depending on the book choice, and mostly 20-somethings, but with a few “women-of-a-certain age,” as the French say, in the mix.  “We have a few mother/daughter and a mother/son teams every once in a while,” says Kamin. “I’d love to see more father/son readers give us a try. I actually pick more male authors than female in the hopes of balancing our membership.”

Another draw is the mix of books.  I have to admit there are a lot of books on the B&B reading list I haven’t heard of.  It’s also pretty cool that they sometimes do Skype sessions with authors at their meetings. “We do a classic every year, but try to shine a light on the lesser known, but equally deserving authors, too,” says Genial Jeff. “I love that we get 100 people together to discuss a book instead of reality TV around the water cooler. We’re reinventing the book club and bringing back literature as a topic of discussion.”

Reading + Travel = Empathy

It seems like every week brings a new sad development in Haiti—cholera a couple of weeks ago, flooding from Hurricane Tomas this week—added to the devastation of the earthquake earlier in the year. I was particularly sad this week to see people in Leogane, where I visited a couple of years ago, dragging themselves through waist deep water.  Then there are the earthquakes in Indonesia… Viewing these images on TV makes us stop for at least a moment and imagine what it must be like for people whose lives are devastated by these disasters, to empathize.

The New York Times’ Jane Brody, in her excellent piece  “Empathy’s Natural, but Nurturing It Helps” says that, “Empathy, the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and recognize and respond to what that person is feeling, is an essential ingredient of a civilized society. Lacking empathy, people act only out of self-interest, without regard for the well-being or feelings of others. The absence of empathy fosters antisocial behavior, cold-blooded murder, genocide.”

From natural disasters to politics (some might see those as overlapping), it seems like we could all use a little dose of empathy these days.   Brody reports that one way to cultivate empathy in children is “reading books and talking about how people (or animals) in a story feel and why they feel that way.” Reading Rockets, a great Web site about “launching young readers,” has an interesting article called, “It Happened Over There: Understanding and Empathy Through Children’s Books.” Scroll down to the end of the article for children’s book suggestions.

I’d add that it’s not too late for older children and adults, too, to cultivate empathy by reading.  Think about To Kill a Mockingbird, The Diary of Ann Frank, Dave Eggers’ What is the What, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl DuWinn’s Half the Sky, Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kiterunner for starters. Do you have other suggestions for “empathy reading?”

Travel is, of course, another way to gain understanding and empathy for people whose lives are far different from ours.  It’s not always possible to travel (or in the case of places with natural disasters, desirable), but you can do it through the pages of a book.

Nancy Pearl and Bill Bryson on Travel

I’ve been flipping through Nancy Pearl’s latest volume of her Book Lust series, Book Lust to Go—Recommended Reading for Travelers, Vagabonds, and Dreamers.  It makes me want to pack my suitcase and try out a few of the locales for which she has reading suggestions—from Afghanistan to Zambia.  Actually, though I’m an adventurous traveler, I’d prefer to discover Afghanistan and Zambia as an armchair traveler, but the book offers plenty between A and Z for just about anyone interested in the literary side of travel.  Right now I’m looking at the “Veni, Vidi, Venice” section with, yes, lust.

Nancy is probably the world’s most popular librarian; she even has an action figure.  She was here in Minnesota a few weeks ago and spoke at the Southdale library and on Minnesota Public Radio.  You can listen to her interview on the MPR Web site. (Also, FYI, this isn’t Nancy Pearl in the photo above.  It’s Teddy Roosevelt, adventurer extraordinaire.)

She says in the intro to the book that (unlike me) she doesn’t like to travel that much, let alone lust for it. “I’m stymied,” she says, “by the very activities of planning a trip and figuring out an itinerary, choosing dates and what to pack. I’m frustrated by my inability to speak any language except English…. You try finding a Laundromat in Tallinn without knowing Estonian and you’ll soon discover that although everyone has assured you that all Estonians speak at least a rudimentary form of English, that doesn’t really seem to apply to most people over thirty.”

But one of my favorite writers, Bill Bryson, would argue that that’s the best part of traveling. In his book Neither Here Nor There, Travels in Europe, he says, “That’s the glory of foreign travel, as far as I am concerned. I don’t want to know what people are talking about. I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.” I’m looking forward to seeing him tomorrow at Pen Pals.

The language problems can be the least of traveling disasters.  Book Lust to Go has a section that cracks me up: “It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time.”  Who hasn’t had a few mishaps while traveling?  They make the best stories. But these books will make most travelers’ problems and pitfalls look like a day at the beach.  Books such as Jim Malusa’s Into Thick Air:  Biking to the Bellybutton of Six Continents (think insects, extreme weather and landmines.)  Also, W. Hodding Carter’s Westward Whoa: In the Wake of Lewis and Clark. To that I’d add Candace Millard’s River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey about his unendingly horrible trip down a tributary of the Amazon, a trip full of treacherous guides, starvation, man-eating fish, malaria and much more.  At one point Roosevelt told his son, Kermit, to just leave him there to die.  Really, that’s where I draw the line. So much suffering is just no fun. Nancy Pearl prefers to be a virtual traveler through the pages of a book. If all trips were as bad as Roosevelt’s, I’d be happy to join her for an armchair adventure.