Category Archives: Ideas for Book Clubs

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.”

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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.

Google Lit Trips: Literary Travel on Your Computer

I’ve finally had a chance to take a look at Google Lit Trips.  It’s an amazing way to use technology to teach/understand reading and literature and to visualize the connection between what you read and where it takes place. Designed by English teacher Jerome Burg, Lit Trips uses Google Earth as well as contributions from educators and students to map the movements of characters over a plot’s timeline while providing excerpts, pictures, and links at each location.

It’s necessary to download Google Earth and do a little experimentation, but for example, you can follow the path of the Joad Family in the Grapes of Wrath, get a real-time view of those locales right, see photos from the era, study questions and much more.  Though
it was intended for students, it’s great for anyone taking kids on a trip or for people who are just interested in having a greater connection to the literature. Look at the Downloads, etc. page to find the list of books that you can take a trip with–no passport required.

Election Antidote: Judd Apatow's "I Found This Funny"

I’m completely overdosed on polarized politics, political analysis and phone calls urging me to vote, which I was going to do even before they called. Listening to certain candidates, especially Minnesota’s own Michelle Bachman, I’ve found my blood pressure rising so much I have to avoid news altogether and seek humor.  Yes, escape through reading. To that end, I’m thinking a book called I Found This Funny, edited by Judd Apatow, looks like a great diversion.

As it turns out, Apatow, the favorite director/producer of most young men I know–including movies such as The Forty-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall–loves books. The compilation features a mix that he describes as “a hodgepodge perfect for toilet or airplane reading.” (So much better than watching CNN.) It includes pieces from F. Scott Fitzgerald, Conan O’Brien, Philip Roth, Adam Sandler, Jonathan Franzen, and Alice Munro, to name a few. Proceeds from the book will go to 826 National, a nonprofit tutoring, writing, and publishing organization with locations in eight cities across the country.

Apatow concedes that not all the pieces are funny, but he says he finds about everything funny. “Most of human experience is just so strange….” That reminds me of some of the candidates, but I’m not thinking about that anymore.

See his comments about the book in a video on the Amazon web site.

Nicole Krauss Builds a "Great House"– Her Thoughts on Writing and Reading

    I went to St. Paul last night to listen to Nicole Krauss at a session of Minnesota Public Radio’s “Talking Volumes” series.  Krauss has been nominated for the National Book Award for her third novel, Great House. (Read The New York Times review of the book. ) 

    At events such as these, someone invariably asks about the author’s creative process, how he or she writes.  Authors often have a very hard time coming up with an answer.  That, or they’re sick of the question. And since, it’s a very abstract process, the answer is usually not very satisfying.  I’d rather hear more generally about the ideas the author wants to convey than about her methods. However, Krauss speaks about as well as anyone I’ve ever heard on the subject of the writing process.  She’s as articulate in a conversation as she is on the pages of her books. Krauss says writes as she goes, without a lot of outlining.  She seems to go where the writing takes her.  She revises as she writes so at the end of the process, she has mostly a finished product. “I make the doorknob first, then the door, and the room,” she said in describing her writing process. “Only much later do you step back and see the whole house.”

    She spoke about how, perhaps because she’s a writer, it’s sometimes difficult to find books that totally carry her away, the way books affected her as a child.  However, she raves about Israeli writer David Grossman and his book To the End of the Land. “It blew my mind,” she said. I’m eager to pick that one up and suggest it to my book club. (See the New Yorker article about Grossman.)

    I also enjoyed a PBS Newshour interview with Krauss last week.  Interviewer Jeffrey Brown ended the interview with, “Finally, sort of on that subject, I can’t help but notice the centrality of books and literature to many of the characters in this novel. A couple of them are writers, others are really great readers. We don’t seem to live in a time where that’s true for most people anymore.”

    Krauss responded, “It’s certainly true in my life. I think I am who I am because of the books that I read, and I think of myself still as first and foremost a reader and then following that a writer. But I’m aware that both in my last novel The History of Love, where there was a book that was a center that connected all the characters, and now here is this desk, which is at least one of the components that connects, that these are objects that are saturated with the possibilities of literature. I do feel like I’ve staked my life on this, which is this idea that literature affords us this absolutely unique possibility in no other moment in life. Really, I think again in no other art form can you step so directly, so vividly without any mediation into another’s inner life. You are stepping fully into this stream of what it is to be another person. And I think when you do that, you inevitably form a kind of compassion. It teaches a kind of empathy. So for me this is like a great value of literature. It’s also again for me, somebody who’s obviously — all my characters are often solitary, they’re struggling with that solitude, but they are not content with it. They would like to move beyond it, to transcend it to express themselves to others in a way that I think they all feel is possible. And it’s no accident that literature becomes a kind of singular way for many of them to do that.”

    Empathy, compassion, what it’s like to be another person… Makes you wish more people would pick up a book.

    See her conversation with Brown at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/blog/2010/10/conversation-nicole-krauss-great-house.html And look for a video and transcript of Krauss’s “Talking Volumes” interview to appear soon the MPR Web site.http://find.publicradio.org/search?site=mpr&proxystylesheet=mpr&client=mpr&output=xml_no_dtd&filter=p&numgm=5&q=talking+volumes&x=14&y=14

A Soothing Visit to Birchbark Books: Louise Erdrich Shared Her Book Suggestions–and I Took Them

Yesterday was a blustery day in Minnesota that would surprise even Winnie the Pooh.  I blew into the one of the best places in Minneapolis to be on a stormy day, Birchbark Books .  It’s a cozy independent shop with warm wood, a dog to greet you, and an unusual array of books that might not come to your attention in a big chain bookstore. The shop reflects the literary, environmental and Native American cultural interests of its owner, National Book Award-finalist, Louise Erdrich.

In contrast to the agitating wind outside, soothing Native American music played inside as I strolled through the books, Native American quillwork, basketry and jewelry.  Louise attaches hand-written notes to books she suggests which feels like she has left personal notes just for you. That sales technique certainly worked on me; I picked up a signed copy of Louise’s book The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, along with two books I would never have chosen, Risking Everything-110 Poems of Love and Revelation edited by Roger Housden, and just in time for Halloween, Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, about a vampire and a journey through the capitals of Eastern Europe.

The store creates an atmosphere that I would have loved as a child, with a tiny loft and a “hobbit hole” to play in, the kind of place that might stir up a child’s imagination and make even a reluctant reader want to big up a book or have a story read to him. Another of my favorite features of the store:  a confessional that was formerly a sound booth in a bar as well as a confessional. As the shop’s Web site says, “One side is dedicated to Cleanliness, the other to Godliness. Louise is currently collaging the interior with images of her sins.  The confessional is now a forgiveness booth, there for the dispensation of random absolution.”

This would be an excellent spot for a book club outing, perhaps with lunch or dinner at the Kenwood Café next door and a chance to hang out and chat with the store’s booksellers. They also organize a BYOB Book and Dinner Club.

Those who can’t make it to Minneapolis should take a bit of inspiration—okay, steal the idea—and organize your own Book and Dinner event.  What a great way to share meaningful conversation and meet new friends.