Book Club Wrap Up: Book Clubs as Cheap Entertainment

Sheri, our bartender 

 

Sheri, our bartender

With our economy in the gutter, I’m looking for ways to have fun on a budget. Spring break is coming up and we have no plans to go anywhere, so we’ll be riding bikes, having picnics, going to the library, using coupons for free games of bowling, going to the beach (free for us) and anything else that doesn’t cost a lot of money. I’m constantly dreaming up bargain ways we can enjoy ourselves.  Cheap is good, free is better.  

And so it is with the book club.  For the price of a bottle of wine or, in the case of last week, a pan of chicken enchiladas, I get two to three hours of lively, inspiring conversation in a room full of adults.  We laugh, catch up with each other, eat, and talk- a lot- about that month’s book, but also about whatever else is going on, all in a relaxed, cozy, kid-free atmosphere.  Friendships with these other women have a chance to grow over time into something unlike other relationships in our lives, because we have this common bond.  The food is always delicious, and sometimes, there are margaritas.  That’s a lot of bang for my buck. 

Last Sunday my book club descended on my house, a dozen women coming up my driveway in a wave of laughter, bearing food and drink and books.  Reading is solitary but book clubs are social, and I look forward to seeing these people all month.  We sat around my very long dining table enjoying our dinner and each other.  Sheri mixed up the margs and they were unbelievable (the key is fresh everything- including limes from her backyard).  We welcomed a new member (she was the only one who didn’t partake in the margaritas, so I hope we didn’t scare her off!), finished dinner, then moved into the living room to discuss Sara’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay.  The book was universally enjoyed but, surprisingly, didn’t give us that much to chew on, which worked out well because this was a ‘voting’ meeting.  We needed to decide what to read this summer.  And that takes a while.

We voted on 2 new book selections from a list of 9 nominees.  Here’s the list: 

The Art of Racing in the Rain 

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society 

Out Stealing Horses 

South Sea Tales 

Beneath the Marble Sky 

The Book of Bright Ideas 

Still Alice 

The Book Thief 

Life of Pi

After much discussion, we voted in Still Alice by Lisa Genova for July, a novel about a woman struck by early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease, and Life of Pi by Yann Martel for August, a fable about the son of a zookeeper who finds himself in a lifeboat with several wild animals. 

Then some people had to leave, but others stayed for the ‘book club after the book club’ which was more informal (no discussion questions here!).  We had another drink and compared this months selection to last months, and found out which one people liked better, and why, and talked about what makes a book discussable, etc.  But then it was time to retrieve the kids from the neighbor’s house.  Sadly, our book club bubble was about to burst. 

My neighbor later said she enjoyed hearing our laughter (I guess we were a little loud!) and was surprised when she found out it was “just a book club meeting” (as opposed to some other kind of party) which proves my point.. book clubs are a great form of cheap entertainment!  

Guest Post and Giveaway: Are You Sometimes (*gasp*) a Reading Lemming?

Kelly Simmons, author of the new novel Standing Still, is sitting in for me today!  Read the giveaway details at the end of this post:

us_coverAre you sometimes (*gasp*) a Reading Lemming? 

In a great article recently in the New York Times fiction reading has finally been declared as being on the rise.  The folks in charge of the National Endowment for the Arts credit community-based reading efforts, book clubs, and popular franchises like Harry Potter and Twilight for this turnaround. 

We should all rejoice at this news, indeed.  But . . .  popular franchises driving reading?  Ouch.   That’s like fast-food driving eating.    That’s like sequels driving movie-going.  That’s like . . . oh crap, that’s America, isn’t it?! 

ksimmons_4866One of the biggest challenges I face with my daughters is convincing them to read books that aren’t series.   (That, and convincing them that normal high school freshmen don’t wear designer dresses and drink Bellinis like they do on Gossip Girl.) But they’re young, and young readers have loved lining up numbered books on their bookshelves since Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys.   But what about adults?   Grown men and women so hungry for sameness, for a “sure thing”, that they read the same franchises and authors over and over and over again with a blind eye to their flaws.  (Confession:  in my youth I was a Kurt Vonnegut junkie. And you?) 

But book clubs don’t do this – they support diversity, they embrace new authors, they mix it up.    Don’t they?   Well . . .  I visited 86 clubs in 2008, promoting my debut novel Standing Still, and while I loved every minute of it (except for getting hopelessly lost in Maryland, where you apparently sometimes need to take the Beltway East when you’re heading West –who knew?)  I was truly shocked by  how many well-known titles were being chosen month after month.   It seemed only books that were heavily promoted by the publisher, heavily reviewed by lots of media , and heavily blurbed with quotes from other authors were being picked.   Worthy books, sometimes.   But very, very, popular worthy books.  And, yes, the same books did seem to be selected by every club I visited. (If I heard the words “Three Cups of Tea”  one more time I thought I was going to choke on a cinnamon stick.)  The bottom line:  in that kind of environment, I had to consider myself extremely fortunate to have been chosen by any book group at all.   Even though Standing Still, with its cynical view of marriage, its romantic view of activism and kidnapping,  its flawed, panic attack-laden main character and its ambiguous plotting and ending, is a book guaranteed to spark discussion and debate.  Even though I’d gotten some truly glowing reviews.   Even though the book clubs raved and said it was like a “simpler starker Bel Canto.”  I was flat-out lucky to be getting considered, and I was humbled down to my bones once again. 

What happened to me is by now a familiar lament.   My book didn’t have an advertising budget.  My handful of glowing reviews all arrived too late to be placed on the jacket cover (they had to be saved for the paperback.)   And no famous writer wrote me a fawning quote for my cover because I’ve never canoodled with any famous writers, other than sitting next to Tom Wolfe at an Amtrak station.    (And yes that’s how it’s done – through favors, just like Illinois politicians.  Oh, don’t act so shocked!) 

Yes, even book group members, as intelligent and independent-thinking a group as you could hope to find, are looking for guidance.   For the comfort of someone else’s belief to inform their decisions.   That’s not bad, that’s just human.   And we all do it, even those of us who know better. 

What I hope you realize, though, is the power you have as an influencer yourself.   Surely your friends ask for your opinion on what to read all the time.  And is there any point in recommending something everyone else is reading?   Don’t people depend on you to go a little deeper?   After all, when you ask a stylish friend where to get a great fitting pair of jeans for Saturday night, do you really want her to whisper “Gap” in your ear? 


Kelly Simmons, a former journalist and advertising creative director, is the author of Standing Still, in paperback February 10, and coming soon, The Bird House.   She visits as many book clubs as she can (here’s a great article in The Philadelphia Inquirer about her visiting clubs).  And she’s now offering an exclusive Book Group DVD to those she can’t.   For more information, see her website or email her at kellysimmonswrites@yahoo.com.

Now for the giveaway!  Win an autographed paperback copy of Kelly’s new book, Standing Still!  From the product description on amazon.com:  “A riveting debut novel that will appeal to fans of Sue Miller and Janet Fitch, Standing Still is a powerful exploration of the darker side of mother-hood and marriage.”

Leave a comment here by Monday, Feb. 9th, for a single entry, or mention the giveaway on your blog (send me the link) and be entered twice.  Good Luck!

In Praise of Book Clubs, Volume 22

In this 22nd volume of In Praise of Book Clubs, CB James of the wonderful blog Ready When You Are, CB (where you can find out which book his basset hound, Dakota, has eaten lately) writes about his book club, which has the honor of being the oldest club we’ve heard about in this series!  Forgive me for not adding links to all 114 books they’ve read!

I’ve been a member of the same book club off-and-on since 1993. That’s fifteen years, with a hiatus for graduate school and a couple of breaks here and there. 15 years and 114 books read so far.

The original members all worked together at the same elementary school, but one who worked at the school in the next neighborhood over. We started off with Wallace Stegner’s Big Rock Candy Mountain, which we all enjoyed. For the first few years, our after school meetings begain with a “discussion session,” mostly complaints about various people we worked with and didn’t like. Then we’d move on to the book. Our reading taste in the early days was a bit more literary than it is now, but there have always been a dash of popular titles and young adult titles on our TBR list.
To choose books, anyone who had one they wanted to suggest brought it to the meeting and we all hashed it out, ultimately deciding the next book via consensus. We never picked a book that any of us had already read, which, in retrospect, may not be the best rule. Most of the time at least a few members enjoyed the book and there were many that we all loved, but there was Jeanette Wintersteen’s Written on the Body, which has become infamous among book club members as the book no one liked at all.

While the book club has been around for 15 years no single member has. I took a couple of years off for graduate school. Some members have moved away; some moved away and moved back. New members have joined. Currently there are nine active members, three former members and two members who stop in whenever they are in town, in one case in the country.
Our current book is Mutant Message Down Under by Marlo Morgan. We’ve changed the way we select books; now each member takes a turn choosing the book, which is working out well. After 13 years, we’d fallen into a pattern where two or three members selected almost all of the books. This was okay with me, since I was one of the selecting members, but became a problem for other people. Like everything that lasts a long time, the club has changed the way it works over the years. This year, for the first time, we established a set of ground rules that everyone agreed upon. Bring a book or two when it’s your turn to select, or pass to the next person if you don’t want to choose; make a serious attempt to read the book no matter how much you do or don’t like it; come to the meeting with something to say on way or another.
We’ve all become very good friends over the years. We’ve watched one member’s daughter grow up and head off to college, attended member’s weddings and major birthdays and mourned the loss of several boyfriends and a beloved cat. (The cat was the greater loss.) I fully expect the book club to be around for another 15 years in one form or another and to hit 250 books read before the end. Once something has been around for a long time, it tends to stay around for a long time.

Here’s a list of all the books the club has read over the past 15 years. Not a bad reading list, if you ask me. The books I recommend are in blue. The pictures are books various members voted as their all time favorites. They are listed in the order we read them.

  • Big Rock Candy Mountain, Wallace Stegner
  • A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley
  • How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent, Julia Alvarez
  • Becoming a Man, Paul Monette
  • The Ginger Tree, Oswald Wynd
  • Einstein’s Dreams, Alan Lightman

The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje

Call It Sleep, Henry Roth

Written on the Body, Jeanette Winterson

  • World’s End, T. Coraghessan Boyle
  • The Spectator Bird, Wallace Stegner
  • The Shipping News, Annie Proulx
  • Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Peristroika, Tony Kushner
  • Nobody’s Fool, Richard Russo
  • The Giver, Lois Lowry
  • The Bingo Palace, Louise Erdrich
  • The Awakening, Kate Chopin
  • Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, Dorothy Allison
  • Dear Mem Fox, Mem Fox
  • Snow Falling on Cedars, David Gutterson
  • A Map of the World, Jane Hamilton
  • School Girls: Young Women, Self-Esteem and the Confidence Gap, P.E. Orenstein
  • Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
  • Jazz, Toni Morrison
  • Stones from the River, Ursula Hegi
  • A Civil Action, Jonathan Harr
  • A Parrot in the Oven, Victor Martinez
  • The Color of Water, James McBride
  • A Prayer for Owen Meaney, John Irving
  • She’s Come Undone, Wally Lamb
  • Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt
  • Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Brendt
  • The Beauty of the Lilies, John Updike
  • Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier
  • Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood
  • Here on Earth, Alice Hoffman
  • A Stranger in the Kingdom, Howard Frank Mosher
  • Lolita, Valdamir Nobokov
  • A Perfect Agreement, Michael Downing
  • A Pale View of the Hills, Kazuo Ishiguri
  • Emma, Jane Austen
  • Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterho od, Rebecca Wells
  • Where the Heart Is, Billy Letts
  • Charming Billly, Alice McDermott
  • Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden
  • The Reader, Bernard Schlink
  • I Know this Much is True, Wally Lamb
  • The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rawling
  • The Archivist, Martha Cooley
  • Dreams of My Russian Summer, Andrei Makine
  • The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell
  • Goodnight Nebraska, Tom McNeal
  • For Kings and Planets, Ethan Canin
  • The Hours, Michael Cunningham
  • Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
  • River Angel, A. Manette Ansay
  • Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner
  • Corelli’s Mandoline, Louis de Bernieres
  • Girl with Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier
  • Nervous Condidtions, Tsitsi Dangarembga
  • Wait ’til Next Year, Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • I Married a Communist, Philip Roth
  • The Last Life, Claire Messued
  • Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons
  • House of Sand and Fog, Andre Dubus III
  • The Night Listener, Armistead Maupin
  • Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Letham
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon
  • Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Seabiscuit-An American Legend, Laura Hittenbrand
  • Anil’s Ghost, Michael Ondaatje
  • The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch
  • The Life of Pi, Yann Martel
  • Atonement, Ian McEwan
  • Tears of the Giraffe, Alexander McCall Smith
  • Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
  • Mystic River, Michael Lehane
  • Riven Rock, T.C. Boyle
  • The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers
  • Let’s Not Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller
  • How to Make a Tart, Nina Killham
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, Mark Haddon
  • The Sixteen Pleasures, Robert Hellenga
  • The Kite Runner, Khaled Hossein
  • Back When We Were Orphans, Kazuo Ishiguru
  • The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
  • Don’t Think of an Elephant-know your values and frame the debate, George Lakoff
  • Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
  • Mendocino, Ann Packer
  • A Million Little Pieces, James Frey
  • The Plot Against America, Philip Roth
  • My Antoni a, Willa Cather
  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundara
  • The Devil in White City, Erik Larson
  • Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
  • Songs in Ordinary Times, Mary McGarry Morris
  • Farewell my Lovely, Raymond Chandler
  • Hard Times, Charles Dickens
  • The Good German, Joseph Kanon
  • Julie and Julia, Julie Powell
  • Criss Cross, Lynne Rae Perkinds
  • Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut
  • Black Swan Green, David Mitchel
  • True History of the Kelly Gang, Peter Carey</li&g t;
  • Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck
  • Holidays on Ice, David Sedaris
  • Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen
  • The Reading Group, Elizabeth Noble
  • Small Island, Andrea Levy
  • Eat, Love, Pray, Elizabeth Gilbert
  • Losing Battles, Eudora Welty
  • The Echo Maker, Richard Powers
  • Mutant Message Down Under, Marlo Morgan
Blogger Bio:  C.B. James lives with his spouse and their many pets in Vallejo, CA.  He teaches 7th grade English and history in Marin County.  He has been in the same book club for over 15 years.  The book club is all teachers, most of them elementary school  teachers. When not teaching, reading or blogging, C.B. James can be found in his art studio where he makes mixed media art books or walking his Bassett Hound Dakota who would love to eat every book in the house if she could.
***Would you like to share about your book club here at Books on the Brain? If so, leave a comment and I will get in touch with you about a guest post!

For previous volumes of In Praise of Book Clubs, click HERE

For more info on starting your own book club, click HERE

For fun ways to make your book club better, click HERE

To win a copy of Matrimony by Joshua Henkin (who ADORES book clubs), click HERE

Queen of the Road Giveaway!

 “Trailer for sale or rent, rooms to let fifty cents..”  Why is this song stuck in my head, you ask?? Well, because I’m reading “Queen of the Road” by Doreen Orion, a romantic travel memoir of when the author and her outdoorsy husband decided to chuck it all and spend a year traveling the country in a converted bus.  Yes, a YEAR in a bus, with 2 cats, a poodle, and lots of shoes! I’ve barely started the book, but so far it’s fun and funny- I love her sense of humor. Here’s more about it from Broadway Books:

Summary: A pampered Long Island princess hits the road in a converted bus with her wilderness-loving husband, travels the country for one year, and brings it all hilariously to life in this offbeat and romantic memoir.

Doreen and Tim are married psychiatrists with a twist: She’s a self-proclaimed Long Island princess, grouchy couch potato, and shoe addict. He’s an affable, though driven, outdoorsman. When Tim suggests “chucking it all” to travel cross-country in a converted bus, Doreen asks, “Why can’t you be like a normal husband in a midlife crisis and have an affair or buy a Corvette?” But she soon shocks them both, agreeing to set forth with their sixty-pound dog, two querulous cats—and no agenda—in a 340-square-foot bus.

Queen of the Road is Doreen’s offbeat and romantic tale about refusing to settle; about choosing the unconventional road with all the misadventures it brings (fire, flood, armed robbery, and finding themselves in a nudist RV park, to name just a few). The marvelous places they visit and delightful people they encounter have a life-changing effect on all the travelers, as Doreen grows to appreciate the simple life, Tim mellows, and even the pets pull together. Best of all, readers get to go along for the ride through forty-seven states in this often hilarious and always entertaining memoir, in which a boisterous marriage of polar opposites becomes stronger than ever. — Broadway Books

Want to win your own copy of Queen of the Road?  Just visit the Queen of the Road website and click on the “share a thought” link on the roadsign on the left.  Once you are there, leave a comment by Monday, July 28th, about anything!  You can talk about your own travel experiences, your love of shoes, a trip you took with your spouse, your pets, how much you enjoy my blog (hee hee), the author’s website, or ANYTHING AT ALL!  It’s entirely up to you. Just leave a comment along with your email address, and mention that you got there via Books on the Brain.  Ms. Orion will be selecting a winner and will forward the info. to me so that I can send out the book.  This contest is open to US and Canadian residents only (sorry!)

This book is everywhere right now.  It was the featured book club selection in June at Borders and is the Adventure at Every Turn book club July selection at Celestial Seasonings!  In fact, Celestial Seasonings is running an awesome Iced Tea Drink recipe contest inspired by this book, which starts each chapter with a cocktail recipe.  The prizes are pretty spectacular, so I suggest you check it out.

Doreen Orion’s website can be found HERE.  She is more than happy to visit with book clubs via speaker phone.  Here’s a reading guide to help with discussions.

And you can check out reviews of Queen of the Road HERE and HERE.  Good luck!

Book Club Babes

After nearly a year and a half of monthly meetings, we finally got around to snapping a picture at our book club meeting yesterday. That’s me, kneeling on the left. We’ll have to take another shot when we’re all together (one of our group missed the meeting).

We had a cookout to kick off the summer. Our hostess, Maggie (3rd from right) grilled hot dogs and burgers, and several people brought interesting salads and wine. I enjoyed a terrific Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling with my dinner (from Costco), and then I had a little more after dinner!

We discussed Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks (reviewed HERE). We all felt it was excellent, very well researched and well written. We compared the plague to modern day epidemics and one member (Hello, Mom! – the good looking redhead 2nd from right) had information on the influenza pandemic of 1918 that killed more than 25 million people-far more than the plague in the 1600’s. My mom is always ready with statistics and background information… not only does she read the book each month, she takes notes (she’s a bit of an overachiever!). We went through all the discussion questions and had a great conversation about Year of Wonders. I would highly recommend it for book clubs.

After we wrapped up the discussion, it was time to nominate books for this fall. One member (Sara-seated- in the black shirt) thought it would be fun to have husbands/significant others attend our September meeting, which she will host in her backyard. Wow, did that get shot down in flames!! A couple people said, “Why?” and others said, “My husband doesn’t read!” Hmmm. Oh well, it was a nice thought. It sounded fun to me!

We had some fabulous suggestions for our fall book club picks, but after the voting it came down to this:

September: The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein (I LOVE the cover!!)

October: Peony in Love by Lisa See (our first repeat author!)

November: Kandide and the Secret of the Mists by Diana Zimmerman (this is a YA book, but one of our members- Karen-2nd from left- is a friend of the author and will ask her to attend our meeting in person- a first for us).

Our July choice is The Sweet Potato Queen’s 1st Big-Ass Novel by Jill Conner Browne, which a couple of our members have already read and they swear is funny. I’ve never read a book with the word ASS in the title before. Never thought I would, either! For August we will read Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, and the author will join us by speaker phone.

What are you reading this summer?