Added to which she also finds time to work as a bookseller, private tutor, freelance writer, singer/songwriter and reviewer for BookBrowse!
If you’ve ever wondered what sort of book club would be right for you – big or small, social versus book focused, in-home versus meeting in a public place etc., you’ll find much of interest in this month’s interview.
Hello Judy, firstly please tell us a little bit about each of the book clubs you belong to, and how you manage to find the time to fit them all in?
The first is Bookie Babes: We meet at a Barnes & Noble store in Burbank, CA on the 4th Wednesday of each month at 7:30 pm. The group is fairly small (only about 8 members are attending regularly) but we get along great and have a lot of fun. We are all women and range in age from 40 to late 70s. All but one of us has children and some have grandchildren. Our interests and careers vary widely. We have a motto which we stand by faithfully. “Take a chance on a book!”
We start each meeting with a thumbs up/ thumbs down/ thumbs somewhere in between vote. This group involves lots of laughter which begins right with the vote. Then we also know right away where everyone stands. Sylvia is our moderator for which she has an innate talent. She usually starts by asking someone why she voted as she did and then we are off. The discussion just flows smoothly with everyone getting to finish what they have to say before another begins talking. I always feel satisfied with the discussion and always have additional insights into the book.
Each month, in rotation, one of us brings a list of 8-10 suggestions of books to read, with blurbs and page numbers. We vote, each member getting two votes and the book with the most votes is the one we will read two months later. I also like knowing two months ahead what is coming up. The voting method makes sure that everyone gets a chance to recommend her preferred type of book. We have mystery lovers, one who likes heart warming love stories, a historical fiction fan and then there is me, who likes somewhat dark literary stuff.
The second group doesn't have a name, but we meet at an independent bookstore called Once Upon A Time, in Montrose, CA. The group has been in existence for over 20 years and I have been a member for 2 1/2 years. This month I started working as a bookseller at Once Upon A Time! We have a couple of men in this group who are husbands of members which I like for the different perspective this sometimes brings. The age range is even wider here; from 30s to 80s and attendance can be as high as 25 people or as low as 10. We meet on the second Tuesday of each month.
The bookstore owner is the moderator, but she doesn’t have to do much moderating because this group is very well behaved. We start with the person whose pick the book was and then go around the circle, each person having his or her say. It is OK to comment on what someone else says but it is understood that one person “has the floor.” We all come prepared to speak our piece; some even bring notes. I would say that this group has the highest average education and most are big readers and have been for all their lives. I am almost always enriched by the discussion.
Once every four months, we each bring suggestions (if we want to; not everyone does) and it is a show-and-tell. You actually bring the book or pick it off the shelf and tell a bit about it. We pass the books around, look them over and then vote. The top four books are the ones we read. If one chooses to buy all four books at a time the store gives us 20% off.
The third group also meets at an independent bookstore called Portrait of a Bookstore, in Toluca Lake, CA. Currently we are meeting on the fourth Monday of each month. The group has about 20 members who are the most intrepid readers of the four groups, but we have super chaotic discussions. In fact this group got so big that the leader (an employee at the store) decided to split it in two. The original group is taking no new members and anyone new goes into the new group.
These women are all professionals and we are mostly “post-menopausal”. We meet on the patio of the coffeehouse to which the store is attached and just dive in and discuss at a mad rate. Sometimes it is hard to get heard, sometimes it gets heated and too often it gets snarky. I would call this the quintessential LA reading group.
Back in the summer of 2006, we went to a new method of selecting books. Everyone brought suggestions which we winnowed down to 12 and thus created a reading list for the whole year. I have thought of giving up this group several times because the discussions are so frustrating, but I stay because overall we read the most challenging books and many members make thought provoking observations.
The last group is The No Name Book Group: This is an offshoot of the group from Portrait of a Bookstore, started by one of the members when she became frustrated by the size and conduct of the Portrait Group. We have only been going for a few months. We meet on the third Thursday of each month at a sandwich/coffee/dessert restaurant, in Studio City, CA, eat and discuss. We are still finding our common ground on how to choose books, etc. We have about eight members, some of whom also came from the Portrait group. The leader is my best book friend. Most of the members are well read and again the discussions are high on thoughtfulness and intelligence.
We all keep in touch by email, but one aspect that bothers me is that if we choose a book and then some members don’t like it right off the bat, the selection gets changed mid-month. That doesn’t affect my ability to get the book read in time; it just violates my sense of order.
What would you say is the special characteristic of each club that keeps you attending all of them?
Bookie Babes is fun. Even if I have had a terrible day, I feel exhilarated and happy after our meetings. Some of the books we read I consider to be too light weight but I think most of the other members think my picks are weird.
The group at Once Upon A Time has the most satisfying discussions because of the orderly way in which the meeting flows. I also like the big age range, that we occasionally have men there and the fact that several members are up on history. We read mostly fiction, some memoirs and also some classics. This month we are reading Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser.
As I mentioned above, I stay with the group at Portrait of a Bookstore because of the willingness of the group to read challenging books. Again the range is from literary fiction to memoirs to classics. Except for last month when we read The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, which we all felt was badly written and over-hyped, we read good books. Coming up are Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz and Middlemarch by George Elliot.
The No Name group I stay with because the leader is my friend and because it is the only group I helped create. So it is an experiment and we try different things that some of us have picked up from reading about how to have a successful reading group. For instance, someone always starts the discussion by reading the first page of the book aloud, which effectively puts us all right into the book and ties up the end with the beginning. It gets our minds working and focused. We have read Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner which we all loved and yet it prompted the longest and best discussion. On Beauty, by Zadie Smith is one that got rejected mid-stream as did History of Love by Nicole Krauss. These women are picky and they know what they like.
I can’t say that I have a favorite. Each group pleases me in a different way. Many people think that I am amazing because I read so much. I don’t feel amazing; I wish I could read more. I just don’t ever watch TV, I only read magazines that have to do with books and every moment that I am not at work, doing housework or other “duties”, I am reading. My dream is to make a living from reading books because I love to read better than anything else, but when I look at all the great books I have not read yet, I feel woefully ignorant. In fact, the reason I joined all these book groups is that I desperately needed people to talk to about books.
All your groups meet in public places. Do you think there are benefits of meeting publicly rather than in someone’s home?
The main reason that all these groups meet in public places is that most of the members work and have very busy lives, so no one wants to bother with having her house clean and providing food or beverages. From my experience of being in book groups for the past three years or so, keeping the conversation focused is the most challenging aspect of all. Let’s face it, women love to talk about anything. Personally, I am happy that the main subject is a book rather than children, illnesses, or TV shows.
Can you tell us what books have generated the best discussions? Have you discussed the same book in more than one group? If so it would be interesting to know how these discussions varied to understand how much a particular book “makes” the discussion and how much is the group itself.
Yes, I have discussed the same book in more than one group, which is an interesting study of the personality of the different groups. Examples are The Kite Runner, The Birth of Venus, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, The Known World, The Devil and the White City, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, Gonzalez and Daughter Trucking Company by Maria Amparo Escandon by Maria Amparo Escandon and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.
A good instance of a book bringing out the personality of a group would be The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. In the Portrait group the discussion centered on aspects of autism and Asperger syndrome. In the Once Upon A Time group, we talked mostly about parenting and how the boy’s mother and father each influenced his development and actions. In Bookie Babes we were astounded by how cool that kid was and how much we loved him and could anyone figure out those math problems he put in there. I leave your readers to make what they will of these different reactions. I love the way an author sends a book out into the world and causes so many different reactions and interpretations in readers.
In a previous book club chat, Jane commented that she saw a difference between people’s favorite books and those that made for the best discussions. Do you think people have to “like” a book to have a good discussion?
I think most members of book groups can recall meetings when everyone loved the book but after fifteen minutes there was nothing left to say. However, I have found that liking or disliking the book is not the factor that makes a good discussion. It is the book itself.
In the Once Upon A Time group we read a book called Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas. It was almost unanimous that the book was badly written and definitely not funny, but we had a long and satisfying discussion about the experiences of immigrants in the 21st century, comparing this book to the part of The Kite Runner when the main character came to America, etc.
On the other hand, we all loved Lost Horizon by James Hilton as well as The Distant Land of My Father by Bo Caldwell yet went on discussing it way past our bedtimes. Then again, in Bookie Babes, we read Novel by George Singleton (one of my “weird” suggestions). Three fourths of the group really hated it and the discussion was a quick expression of all the ways they hated it and then over.
The bottom line is that it's sometimes hard to tell about a book, even after reading blurbs, reviews and listening to others’ recommendations. I don’t find reading any book a waste of time (well, maybe Danielle Steele books) and I love our motto in Bookie Babes: “Take a chance on a book.”
Could you give us a short list of books that have generated the most interesting discussions?
The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
The Red and the Black by Stendahl
The Way the Crow Flies by Ann-Marie MacDonald
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Are there any books that bombed? If so, why do you think they did?
Aside from Novel, the biggest bomb I recall was Quite a Year For Plums by Bailey White which we read in Bookie Babes. None of us liked the book because aside from some quirky characters, it was boring to read and had no plot. There was just nothing to discuss.
In the Once Upon A Time group one month we read both The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler and Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. We were very proud of ourselves for reading two books in one month! But it was a good thing we did, because The Jane Austen Book Club was dull and predictable and would have bombed if we hadn’t had Northanger Abbey to discuss.
Lastly, based on your wide ranging experience, can you tell us the magic formula for a successful book club?
Magic formula for success, hmm. Well I would say that all the members must like to read and should commit to finishing the book in time for the meeting. If because of some uncontrollable circumstance a member does not finish the book, she should not ask the others to keep from giving away the ending (that really annoys me!)
Those are the two top ingredients for success but in my “ideal” book group, everyone would get a chance to speak without being interrupted and that has a lot to do with the leader or moderator of the discussion. The best way of choosing books is the method we use in Bookie Babes, where each month, in rotation, a member brings a list of 8-10 suggestions with short reviews and page numbers. Then we vote and read the book no matter what because, after all, we voted for it.
Someday I would like to have a group where we picked an author and read her entire oeuvre from oldest to most recent. Some authors I would suggest would be Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Simone de Beauvoir, A S Byatt, T C Boyle, Ursula Le Guin, John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy. I imagine this would be a very special group of readers who read for more than pleasure.
Having an author at a book group discussion is a unique kind of fun. I have experienced this three times and we all loved hearing about how the author came to write the book, some of her experiences as a writer, etc. In various groups we have had Los Angeles based mystery writer Denise Hamilton; Maria Amparo Escandon, author of Gonzales & Daughter Trucking Co; and a local self-published mystery writer who is also a friend of mine, Alice Zogg. Of course, you don’t get to slam the book with the author there, although Alice Zogg came under fire for killing off one of our favorite characters!
Sometimes members have brought special food or drinks to go with a book. When we read Devil in the White City, a member brought an etched glass bought by someone in her family at the Chicago World’s Fair. I think these things work best when they happen spontaneously.
For me, what matters is the book, the reading and the discussion. If that is happening, I am happy. Then the meeting becomes a time to share insights, new information and ideas about life. Reading fiction is a rather sacred activity to me and vital to becoming and remaining involved in society and the world. I find more truth in fiction than I do in the news and I feel strongly that it is a sort of last bastion of freedom in increasingly oppressive political and economic times. So people who read books and get together to discuss them are not revolutionary perhaps, but evolutionary for sure. If some people do not find that activity enjoyable, then it could be that they need to find another activity.
Thank you Judy, you've certainly given us a lot to think about!
This interview was first featured in 2007--->
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