Hello Lynda, thanks for chatting with us today. First
off, can you tell us a bit about your book club?
At present, we have about a dozen active members, although our website lists 30 members who receive our posts, and 4 members do not avail themselves of computer access. We have two names, both unwieldy, "Springfield (PA) Borders Fiction Group" and "Spbrdrsfiction", our computer name.
Currently, we are all women and all live in Delaware County, PA. Our passionate love of reading is what has brought us together. Our ages range from our twenties to seventies. Occupations of our members include teachers, librarians, nurses, a minister; many in the group are mothers and grandmothers. We are religiously diverse: Roman Catholic, Jewish, Protestant. Politically, our party leanings are split.
Would you say your group has a 'character'. If so what is it?
I would have to describe the group as open, accepting, and friendly, with a love and learning and a desire to better understand our fellow humans through reading and discussion. Our meetings regularly include talks of the news of the month, other books individual members have read, news about favorite authors, and sharing of family photos and photos from recent trips by members.
So, from your name, I assume you meet in a Borders bookstore. How did the group get going?
I have spoken to members from the initial meetings, in the late 1980's, Borders advertised "in store" for readers to join either a Fiction or Mystery Discussion Group and provided an employee facilitator to get them started. I seem to remember that Borders and Barnes & Noble were expanding, at least in our area, and all locations were initiating book groups.
I think that it was around the same time that Oprah started her book club, most original members disagree. (Funny aside, usually when a member suggests an "Oprah" book for our group, they stress that the novel is not like most Oprah choices, i.e. heavy and depressing. We hated Vinegar Hill; but recently, really enjoyed Eat, Pray, Love.)
Sadly, one of the original members, and leader of the group in 1999, Mary M., died in the spring of 2004. Mary was an 80+ year old dynamo who kept the group very organized, loved historical fiction and disliked non-fiction and short stories. One of her favorite reads was A Cup of Tea by Amy Ephron. Mary was raised in DC and regaled us with the customs and history of society at the time of the book, set in the early 1900's. We requested tea instead of coffee, and some of us brought Christmas cookies for that meeting.
How do you recruit new members?
In the beginning, readers would drop-in after seeing an in-store flyer of scheduled events, or even join a discussion as they browsed the store. Now, with the meetings stuck in the far corner of the store, and in-store flyers sporadic, most new members are friends or family of active members. Since our numbers are down, I've been thinking of blurbs in local newspapers, maybe some posters in libraries.
What are the advantages/disadvantages of meeting at a bookstore?
Advantages: Having books available to view and buy, to read synopses and author info is a real plus. Still, if there were a computer available, we could check independent reviews like BookBrowse. Borders originally gave members a 30% discount on group choices, then 20%, then last year, no discount.
Most of our members use the libraries, used bookstores, or book sales to obtain their books now, some do still buy from Borders. We do provide the store with a listing of our upcoming reads, hoping that they might post it, and to ensure that they order enough copies. Since the majority of our recent choices have been best-sellers, that is usually not a problem. Our Borders is also centrally located for most of our members, parking is free and adequate. We don't have to schedule meetings at various members' homes, putting a burden on members, and necessitating the confusion of directions. The biggest advantage should be visibility, so that we can attract new members.
I kept hoping that Borders could offer tie-ins to authors/publishers, but the only advantage I've noted is the availability of a speaker phone. For our first phone conference, with Donna Woolfolk Cross (Pope Joan), the speaker-phone didn't work properly - as a result she describes us as her "10-4" group because I would relay our questions/comments to Donna, then say "10-4" to let her know we were listening. It worked out, thanks to Donna's patience and good spirits. We are still waiting for the movie, and her next novel.
Disadvantages: Since Borders has decided not to provide beverages and light refreshments, we all bring our own. Of course, meeting at member's homes could be more comfortable & provide the option of theming refreshments to the present title, but, for avid readers, often a bookstore feels just like home. Meeting in a public place does cause a higher turnover, yet that also provides more diverse insights.
For core members, a bond develops - we have discussed and shared all types of human experience, through our reads, and our lives. As I mentioned, Mary M., our leader, passed away. Many of us still work or attend a local book sale kind of in her honor - and rarely does a meeting pass without a mention of "what Mary would think'. We're literally watching one member's family grow; Leah started when she was first pregnant, she now has a girl and a boy. Others travel often, and when they return they share their travel experiences, and we share opinions of recent reads that they missed.
How are meetings organized?
We pick our reads three to six months in advance, so choosing is not every month. In 2004, we decided that the member nominating a book would lead that discussion. If that member misses that meeting, someone else leads.
Usually, I'll start the discussion with, "So who read and finished the book? And did you like it? Why or why not?" We often use Reader Guides, but not always. Once we have exhausted our analysis of the characters, their actions, the writing, the setting, and why the book appealed to us or not, we turn to upcoming titles and suggestions for new reads. Then, we share any literary news, upcoming book sales, author events near-by, what individual members other book groups are reading, and personal news.
How do you choose the books, and has this changed over time?
One of the early leaders was partial to Book Award winners and by the late '90's there was a one book by any author rule; now we look for new titles by authors we've previously enjoyed. For example, in January this year we read A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon because of our unqualified admiration of A Curious Incident, In our discussion of A Spot of Bother opinions were mixed, by the end, a few members who couldn't finish the novel, had decided to try again. Our February choice was Confessions of An Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire, which was suggested by a member as a much different, easier to read, more enjoyable novel than Wicked, which we read and didn't enjoy; most members strongly agreed.
After a short time of blindly choosing some reads, which only worked about half the time, we now expect that the member nominating a title will have read and liked that novel, or have researched or had glowing word-of-mouth recommendations. Since we won't pick a novel until it is released in trade paperback, we maintain a list of suggested titles that have been nominated "too soon". I have toyed with the idea of a theme for a year, but the only "themes" that have been successful are to try a classic once a year; and "something short and uplifting" for December.
What advice would you give to someone starting a new group in a book store?
First, be flexible - Spbrdrsfiction would have missed a phone discussion with Alan Brennert (Molaka'i) if we weren't willing to adjust our reading schedule. We lost a section of our group who worked together because they wanted to read other books. (Some of them do keep in touch, and I'd like to think that it was more a matter of convenience, i.e. meeting at work, than that it was something our group did/didn't do.).
Next, a little organizing will go a long way. Name tags are nice, if you have frequent drop-ins. If you are meeting in a bookstore, someone in the group needs to be responsible as a contact for the group. Assess the group's computer skills, and inclination; I believe that our website could be great for communication between meetings, but most of our members just want to read and discuss good books, and simply don't feel that they have the time for computer stuff. Hence, I have begun to print out copies of much that I have placed on line.
Someone in the group needs to be willing to keep records; we have a listing of all books read by our group since 1993 thanks to an early member, Joyce F. who died in 2006. Someone to do research, and to plan events is also helpful. This can be one person for all these "jobs" as in our group. (I am a "serial volunteer" as well as a "serial book clubber" and computer junkie); or different, even rotating, members for each job. Our group is very relaxed, if I miss a meeting, someone gets the discussion started.
You've expressed some dissatisfaction with Borders, what would the 'ultimate' bookstore provide for a book club?
Since we believe that book discussions can increase reading and that practically every book can add to the readers' knowledge and understanding, a bookstore should support and advertise their book groups. Support, first of all, could be in the form of connections to authors and publishers; perhaps, printing reader guides and member and "books read" lists. A chain such as Border's could produce a newsletter about in-house book groups around the country. Discounts, even sporadic, would be very nice. And, of course, comfy couches, beverages and light refreshments are always welcome.
Our first request is publicity!
What about special events?
In 2002, we read The Hills of Tuscany by Ferenc Mate. That was the year we began our Annual Dinner by meeting at Cafe Bellissimo (conveniently located next door to Borders) for a Tuscan dinner prior to our discussion, which was still held at Borders. We haven't managed that perfect blend, but we do try to have dinner together prior to one Fall meeting every year.
Most successful of our events are our occasional "author-by-phone" meetings, which also began in 2002. I already mentioned Donna Woolfolk Cross (Pope Joan). Ms. Cross made an offer on her website to speak to groups who read her novel, and we accepted. We try to time the calls so that the group has time to discuss the novel before speaking with the author, and members bring questions.
Our second author, Craig Joseph Danner, contacted me by email in 2003, to promote his first novel, Himalayan Dhaba. (This story has everything, romance, adventure, mystery, travel, mysticism, sadness, and joy!)
In January of 2005, we were chosen to discuss Fanny: A Novel by Edmund White by a publisher website program. Mr. White was our first established author, but Fanny was his first historical novel. He was fascinating, and genially accepted and discussed our criticism of his book.
This past September, we spoke with Alan Brennert about his novel, Molaka'i. Again, he advertised on his website for book groups. His descriptions of Hawaii and his wonderful characters had us asking questions like, "What did Rachel's daughter do after she went home?", as if they were real people! His next novel is on our TBR list as soon as it is available.
Besides the author calls, we try to have an Annual Dinner in the Fall. Also, we are always on the lookout for more authors to visit or call us to discuss their novels. In the future, I foresee group visits to Book Expo's, local author events, and movies of novels read. Some of the group have discussed ideas, the problem is time and logistics.
Okay, let's name names - what have been some of your favorite books, and any that "bombed"?
Our list of favorites is as diverse as our members. Many best seller's, of course, hence the name; yet little known novels have also thrilled us. For discussion purposes, The Red Tent by Anita Diamante, The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger, and The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon were highlights.
Books that bombed have usually been the result of choosing simply by cover blurbs. I can't remember a redeeming comment on The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. One member said "You usually suggest such wonderful novels, what happened that you chose this?" to another member about The Center of Winter by Marya Hornbecher.
I had to compile a list, this discussion was so animated. So, I've included our new list. Since the favorites outweigh the bombs, we feel that we've done well in our choosing.
From a discussion of all books read on March 17, 2008.
** ...indicates lead to a great discussion.
1993 - The Chaynesville Incident by David Bradley **
1994 - Before and After by Rosellen Brown
1994 - A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines
1995 - The Shipping News by Annie Prouix
1997 - The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
1997 - Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston **
1998 - A Boy's Life by Robert McCammon
1998 - Evening Class by Maeve Binchy
1998 - The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger **
1999 - Midwives by Chris Bohjalian **
2001 - The Red Tent by Anita Diamante **
2001 - Plainsong by Kent Haruf
2001 - Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
2002 - Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross **
2002 - Empire Falls by Richard Russo **
2002 - Bel Canto by Anne Patchett
2003 - The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd **
2004 - Ahab's Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund **
2005 - The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
2005 - The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini **
2005 - The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon **
2005 - Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
2007 - The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards
2007 - My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult
2007 - Molaka'i by Alan Brennert
2007 - Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirofsky **
Honorable Mention to... (Mixed Reactions)
1994 - The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
1997 - Talk Before Sleep by Elizabeth Berg
2001 - The Hours by Michael Cunningham
2001 - House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III **
2002 - Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hildebrand **
2004 - Life of Pi by Yann Martel **
2004 - The Cave by Jose Saramango
2005 - Little Children by Tom Perotta
2007 - Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
And then there were the BOMBS.......
1995 - White Noise by Don Delillo
1996 - Independence Day (liked the movie) by Richard Ford
1997 - The Decision Tree by Ken Friedman, *All-Time Worst*
1997 - Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester
1999 - A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
2000 - Vinegar Hill by A Manette Ansay
2003 - The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
2003 - The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall
2005 - A Book of Matches by Nicholson Baker
2006 - The Center of Winter by Marya Hornbecher
2007 - Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson
2008 - The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
Phew! Any last thoughts?
I asked the group, "What is the best thing about Spbrdrsfiction"? The resounding and unanimous answer was, "The people!" So, in conclusion, I feel that "Spbrdrsfiction" will keep going as long as there are books to read; and that our friendships will grow and deepen as our reading and discussions increase our knowledge and understanding of each other and our world.
Thank you Lynda!
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