Carrin Mahmood of Mahtomedi, Minnesota joins us to talk about her book club. After getting off to a slow start, she and the ladies of "Chapter Chat" have now been sharing their reading experiences for eight years. In this interview she reveals the 'it' factor that made the club a success.
Hello Carrin, thanks for taking the time to chat. First off, please tell us a
bit about Chapter Chat.
We've been together in our current format for 8 years, but some of us have
been reading together for 15 years. We have 16 on our e-mail list but typically
8-12 show up for any given month. We are in our 40's and 50's, all women. Our
core started as a Mom's Group at our church, but we have since taken jobs, sent
kids off to college, had surprise babies, grandchildren, divorces and marriages.
Like most groups of women we have been there for each other through cancer,
deaths in the family, and general support and laughter.
Top row from left: Carrin, Cindy, Deb, Lisa, Wanda, Sue
Bottom Row: Ringmaster Nancy, Geri, Laurie, Tamara, Tami
How did the group get started?
My friend Nancy and I started a book club at our church in 1992. It went for
a few years and we relaunched it with our moms group in 1998. A couple of years
later, as the two of us sat looking at each other and only each other, for the
third month in a row we determined to figure out what we were doing wrong and
start a book club that was exceptional. We began visiting other successful book
clubs, and interviewed as many as we could to figure out what the "it" factor
was to make a book club successful. We learned two major things:
- Meet on a consistent night. Passionate readers will
schedule around the book club.
- Meet in homes because when a meeting is hosted by a
church or library it's so easy to think…'Oh there will be other people
there, I don't have to go" etc. Adding dessert and wine didn't hurt
Is your church affiliation important to the group?
Yes and No. We did all meet through church and being Christian is a core
part of who we all are. But we don't read literature which is billed as,
"Christian Literature." There are so many lessons to be learned, and God is so
vast that we can find the sacred in most good literature, and the rest we chalk
up to "what not to do!"
How would you describe your group's personality?
We are diverse, passionate and creative. We definitely meet to discuss the
book and everyone brings something to the table. Someone almost always shows up
in a costume of some sort, and we have been blessed with creative hostesses.
When we discussed
Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson our hostess Nancy
arranged for a Navy officer (in his knee melting "whites" no less!) to come and
tell us what months on a submarine would be like. The same hostess also turned
her home into a circus tent when we read
Water for Elephants by Sara
Gruen. A literal hard act to follow! We read The Persian Pickle Club by
Sandra Dallas and I am fortunate enough to have friends who quilt so they came
over and set up a large quilting frame for us, and generously let us novices
work on their quilts, so we could have a quilting bee while discussing that
Wow, you certainly sound like a dynamic bunch! How did you choose your name?
We had a list of 20 names that Nancy and I came up with (I guess we are the
"founders" of Chapter Chat). We wanted it to reflect the fact that we really do
meet to discuss the book, and not just to socialize, as our husbands have
Other than in homes, where else have you met?
We read November of the Heart by
LaVyrle Spencer, which is set in a yacht club, so
we held our meeting at a local yacht club because one of our members has a
membership; and, of course, we had to go to a restaurant on the Mississippi when
we read The Last Girls by Lee Smith; we also visited the zoo to
The Zookeeper's Wife.
Are there any particularly memorable moments that you'd like to share?
Two of our funniest moments;
We were discussing
Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier and
our facilitator Deb had her head covered with amazing accuracy to match the
cover of the book. One of our members came without reading the book, and pulled
a few of us aside furious because we hadn't told her that Deb had cancer and was
clearly going through chemo. (A danger of not only not reading, but not even
looking at the cover of the book!)
William Kent Krueger is a local author. We have read several of his books which
all take place in the Boundary Water Canoe Area. He writes at a local "greasy
spoon" and we reserved one of their rooms. (They have clearly expanded from
their greasy spoon days!) Mr. Krueger was accepting an award that night and was
going to try and stop by. We spotted him entering the restaurant, and the
facilitator for the night, and his biggest fan, ran over with her camera, her
copy of Mercy Falls and her sharpie for an autograph. By the frightened
look on the man's face, we soon realized that it wasn't him. The entire
restaurant was laughing at her apologizing and him apologizing for not being
William Kent Krueger!
Tell us about your meetings
We meet on the first Thursday of the month at 7 p.m. except for July, when
we move it to the second Thursday because of the 4th. We have a sign
up sheet and everyone volunteers to take a month. That means their home, or a
place they arrange.
How do the dynamics of your meetings work?
We have fallen into a routine of arriving at 7 p.m., and then talking and
"snacking" until 7:30. Then the facilitator for the month (We rotate on a
volunteer basis, some are not comfortable, most are) moves us into the
discussion area. We usually discuss until 9 p.m. or so, and when it winds down
the hostess brings out dessert and coffee. We have gotten much better at not
getting off topic, mostly because everyone has facilitated and they know that a
lot of work goes into it. You can come without having read or finished the book,
but no exceptions in conversation will be granted. In other words, you have to
know that we will be talking about the ending so if you want to be surprised you
have to finish, or bow out that month.
We are pretty careful about public places because it gets really hard to hear.
We have a local coffee shop that closes at 7, but agrees to let us stay
privately until 9. Otherwise we look for private rooms or corners.
How do you organize yourselves outside of meetings?
One of our members, Deb has graciously fallen into the organization role.
She keeps track of who is facilitating, hosting, and what books we are reading
when. She also sends out a reminder every month to RSVP to the host, which is
great. We use e-mail mostly for organizational things, and a few of us keep a
Can you tell us more about your blog?
http://chapterchatmn.blogspot.com/ It could be more fascinating but it's been a tough training process. Most members view the comments, but only 2-3 of
us actually post.
On the contrary, I took a look and found it very good with an impressive
number of posts! You are too modest. It took me a bit of time to work out the
relevance of the post about the death of Robert Mondavi, but I kept reading and
Tell us about the sort of books you read?
We have a few members passionate about biographies so we try to work them in
at least once a year. The trouble is sometimes they are hard to discuss. What
happened, happened! There isn't any speculation about why the author chose to
write about it, or how it could be changed to be more interesting. We all like
historical fiction. We include a classic every year. We have even done a few
"light!" text books
So after discussing 70+ books, what would you say are the defining features of
books that generate good discussions.
If the book has been well researched and the meeting is well facilitated. It
makes all the difference in the world!
Any books that generated particularly good discussions or were favorites?
Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by
Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson and
Pope Joan by
Donna Woolfolk Cross all generated good discussions, especially so for
Pope Joan as we chatted with Donna Woolfolk Cross by phone.
We are so varied in our likes, but Peace Like a River by Leif Enger was a
favorite, also a funny little novel called Isn't it Romantic by Ron
Hansen - it was an out of character read for everyone, but we all loved it.
Are there any books that bombed? If so, why do you think they did?
The text book I mentioned earlier wasn't a success. It was good but
once you agree or disagree with the premise, it's hard to generate much
discussion. Bringing in an expert of some sort. would have helped. There was
another book that affected one of the group members on a personal level to the
point of anger and we needed to stop the discussion early. And another that I
LOVED! But alas, I was the only one. It's hard to discuss when everyone really
dislikes a book
Are there any particular issues that you've had to work through over the
Ha! Get 3 or more people together and there are issues. One member attended for
years without reading. She just watched the movie version if there was one, but
made great contributions. On the other hand I am a former English teacher and
run the risk of giving my friends detention when they're not paying attention.
We are serious enough for those of us looking for some good meat, and fun enough
for those who aren't. Our blog helps a few of us discuss and research further.
We have also suggested Lit classes at a local college and some other ideas for
the few who were seeking deeper or lengthier discussions. Side conversations
still pop up now and then, especially if all the members attend or we can't hear
How do you choose the books?
We have developed a way of choosing books that works for us. It changes over the
years but we try to vary the genres, get as many reads as possible in paperback,
and keep the 500 + pagers to a minimum. Everyone takes a month and gets their
If you were starting from scratch is there anything you'd do differently?
Begin in homes right away.
Are there any tips that you'd like to pass on to other book clubs?
- Rotate who chooses, it gives you nice variety.
- Rotate facilitating, it gives you an appreciation of the work put in!
- Be really clear about your level of commitment to reading and discussing, are
you a social group that mentions the book; or a book group that also enjoys the
company; or like one friend who has a reading group…that reads wine labels!