BookBrowse interviews Meet the Novel Ideas book club of Chicago, who take food as seriously as discussion, combining good literature with ethnic dining. Discover the books they've enjoyed, and the ones they haven't; and the types of restaurants that have proved conducive to discussion and those that haven't! about all aspects of their book club.

Book Club Interview (see full list)

Meet the Novel Ideas book club of Chicago, who take food as seriously as discussion, combining good literature with ethnic dining. Discover the books they've enjoyed, and the ones they haven't; and the types of restaurants that have proved conducive to discussion and those that haven't!

Hello Erica.  Thanks for taking the time to chat with us today about your book club.  First off, what makes your group special to you?
Our club combines good literature with ethnic dining.  Living in Chicago, we have a huge choice of ethnic and regional restaurants.  For the first two years, we would decide on a cuisine we wanted to eat ,or a restaurant we wanted to try, and find a book set in the ethnic or regional area of the food we were going to eat.  That caused us occasionally to read some really bad books, so we now are book driven, finding restaurants that act as a good backdrop to books we want to read.

Clockwise: Sue Schneider, Helene Steen, Fern Bogot, Rosa Garcia & Erica Minchella

How did your group get started?
We've been together three years.  My sister, another friend and I had started a group many years ago and just didn't have enough reading friends to keep it going.  About three and a half years ago we all realized that our circle of friends had changed and we each knew more readers and people who were interested in joining us for a book club.  We worked on recruiting members and started when we had about eight people interested.

How did you find people interested in joining your club?

We recruited based on friends we thought would enjoy being part of a book club and who liked to eat out.  Some people who I approached - because I wanted the chance to see them on a regular basis - were either too busy, or were only interested in reading books on their own list and not having choices dictated to them.  Even the ability to pair the books with good food and conversation was not enough to entice them. 

Do you have a name?

Yes, "Novel Ideas".  I had heard the name of another book club, which had a cute turn-of-phrase name and suggested "Novel Ideas" or "Literary Figures" as a name.  The former won the vote.


Clockwise: Fadge Pincham, Jody Lowenthal, Patti McCanna, Jon Shimberg, Linda Crohn, Erica Minchella

Tell us a little about your group
We have 12 members and usually 6 – 8 attend each meeting.  We have one man! (My sister's husband)  He is not at all intimidated by being the only man and adds a wonderful dimension to our discussions.  We have been trying to get more men to join us, so far without success.  We range in age from mid 40s to late 50s.

How would you describe your group's personality?  
We tend to be a little lawyer-heavy (5 of us are lawyers), but there is enough variety of other professionals that provide for interesting and intellectual discussions.  We are all college educated, and almost all have children.  We are all overloaded with work and family obligations, but all read more than just book club selections.

What's your favorite thing about belonging to "Novel Ideas"?
Only one?  I love coupling the dining experience with the books we read.  Eating Indian food with a book set in India or Afghani food with a book set in Afghanistan has truly added a dimension to our discussions.  Sometimes the restaurant's staff will help with background information.  We had Iranian food brought in (complete with explanations by our caterer/member) for our discussion of Pomegranate Soup and included our discussion of our menu with Marsha Mehran when she called us.

Did you contact Marsha through BookBrowse's Invite The Author program?

We did contact Marsha through Invite The Author and we hope to make inviting an author to a meeting an annual event.  Marsha joined us by phone.  It was GREAT!  She was wonderful communicator.  We may have convinced her to come visit Chicago and have offered to help her locate bookstores where she might do readings or book signings.

Anything else you particularly enjoy about your book club?
I enjoy getting other people's take on what I've read.  It is also one of the few things I have time for socially, so it helps me maintain contact with certain friends whom I only see at meetings.  Next to reading, or reading about what I should be reading, I enjoy talking about what others are reading best, so I get a chance to do that at out meetings – or through our online discussions – as well.

Tell us a little about your meetings.
We meet every 4 –5 weeks based on how everyone's schedule is going and we try to accommodate as many people as possible. We don't meet in December and we usually do something different in August, like reprising a novel some people missed the discussion of.

We generally meet on Tuesday evenings from 7 –9. (It's usually easy to get reservations on that night of the week). We spend some time socializing, ordering, talking very generally about the book. I prepare a list of questions to get us to a deeper understanding of the book, looking at themes, foreshadowing, writing style. Anyone can interrupt or move the discussion to a point of interest. The discussion usually lasts 45 minutes to an hour, depending on the depth of the book.  The last 15 minutes to half hour is spent on club business – what books to read next, what restaurants will be a good fit, closing or adding to membership, etc. Final socializing is done as we leave the restaurant.  If we want to do something different – like "High Tea" or "Invite the Author", we find a Saturday that works for everyone.

Who runs the meetings?
I do. I wound up as leader by default. We were going to change leaders each month, but everyone seemed to like the way I lead the discussions and everyone is so busy, they were happy to let me take over. I had taught High School English in a former life and was trained in "The Great Books Method of Discussion" which I try to use as the basis of our discussions.  If I find it difficult to prepare questions, either because I'm too busy or there is something about the book that makes it difficult for me, I usually ask my sister or whoever suggested the book to help out; but if anyone wants to pursue a particular aspect of the book, I become a participant rather than a leader.  

How do you communicate in between meetings?
Over the years, things have worked themselves out.  We use Yahoo Groups to send out messages to everyone, keep a calendar, keep a database of books to read and restaurants we might want to go to.  When an issue arises, we use postings on Yahoo Groups to talk to each other and usually come to a final decision at a meeting.  (We recently had an issue with not being able to hear each other at restaurants and solved that by agreeing to either go to restaurants that could accommodate us at a round table or go to someone's house and order in).

Is it difficult to keep things fresh after 3 years?

We're not afraid to make adjustments and work as a democracy – the majority wins.  After we read some books that no one enjoyed, we had no problem changing the focus to the books rather than the food.  Finding new restaurants and new books keep the group fresh. We have members who watch for other book events too, especially book signings by authors we have read or book readings and some members will go to those and report back on our Yahoo Groups page.

What sort of books you read?
We usually choose fiction, although there have been a number of non-fiction choices as well, because they were interesting topics and fit well with a restaurant we wanted to go to.  Sometimes we tend toward current fiction, other times we feel we need to go back to a classic.  We try to read books that offer some intellectual challenge and may not be something we, individually, might read if not for the book club.  We particularly look for books that will allow us a stimulating discussion.
We used to choose books based on what kind of food we wanted to eat.  Now someone will just suggest a book, or a topic, or a genre and we go from there.  We created a list of books about a year ago and often will refer to that for choices.  We hadn't read any mysteries and I knew that we had some members who loved mysteries, so I suggested we do that for a change.  A number of books were suggested by our mystery lovers, and we voted as a group. (We post a poll on our Yahoo Groups site and pick the book with the most votes.) Sometimes we just need a good Graham Greene novel, or we'll want to try out a particular restaurant and a good book or author fit well. One time, we read James Hilton's novels back-to-back and in addition to the discussions of the books, compared and contrasted the styles.  It varies.  Everyone's ideas are respected and at some point acted on.

What are some of the books that have generated the most interesting discussions? 
The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell & Dustin Thomason
, The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene, Postville by Stephen G. Bloom, The Color of Water by James McBride, Mama Day by Gloria Naylor, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Che Guevara.

Sometimes the discussions are particularly good because of the food or the setting, Non-fiction books have led to good discussions, although I have a difficult time preparing questions for them.    It often helps if someone has read the book and can vouch for it, rather than our deciding blindly on a book because it would go well with a cuisine we want to eat. 

Any Duds?
We enjoyed Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich but the German restaurant we chose had a band setting up while we were talking.  I raced through my questions – to a point where it was almost comical.  Another time, we wanted to eat Tapas and were looking for a good Spanish book and decided on The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, both because it had a Spanish setting and it was a classic.  We all hated the book, but actually had a good discussion about it.
 Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy divided the group – half absolutely hated them, half loved them.  Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll turned out poorly as well.  We wanted to have "High Tea" but the restaurant we chose didn't really serve "High Tea" and it was hard to lead a good discussion about Alice.
 Also Dreams of my Russian Summers by Andrei Makine was not a success.
 Do you have any fixed system for getting copies of books, such as through your library or a bulk deal from a bookstore?
Everyone is on their own to get the book, although we'll help each other out.  We have a great library system in the Chicago area, so some members get their books there.  Others go to book stores, online, or we share amongst ourselves. Sometimes we choose hardcovers, sometimes paperbacks.

Do you have any events that are special to your book club?  Field trips, annual events? 

Since our discussion with Marsha Mehran, we would like to have a discussion with an author annually.  Other than that, if there is a book event, we'll circulate information on our Yahoo Group and whoever wants to goes.

Are there any fun ideas that you've tried that might be of interest to other clubs who are looking for ways to liven things up?
Finding unusual restaurants like Tapas or Fondue have always added a fun dimension to our meetings.  One of our favorite things to do at our meetings is to order as many desserts as there are people at our meeting and pass them around and each take a taste.  On our anniversary each year, I provide a list of the books we read and the cuisines we've had along with the prior years' lists.  I can provide that to you if you'd like!
Yes please! (see below for list)

Have you faced any challenges as a group? 
The biggest challenge, and one that almost came to splitting the group up, was over making sure we had a venue where we could hear each other.  One group lobbied for holding the meeting in members' homes and ordering in; one group lobbied for continuing our restaurant visits and looking for restaurants that could better accommodate us.  We compromised and agreed to look for restaurants with better acoustics, round tables or smaller rooms and if we can't find one that fits the cuisine we're looking for, then we'll hold the meeting at someone's home and order in.  We resolved the problem through postings on our Yahoo Groups page and by voting at a meeting. (It was a well-attended meeting!)

Are there any tips that you'd like to pass on to other book clubs? 
 Use Yahoo Groups.  It is a great way to communicate, to keep a calendar and keep databases of books read and to read.

Thanks Erica, this has been a great discussion.  We wish you and the other Novel Ideas members many more happy years of reading and discussing books!

The Novel Ideas Reading & Restaurant List (all restaurants are in the Chicago area)
Year One

Year Two

  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Fondue Stube.
  • The Color of Water by James McBride. Robinson's Ribs (Oak Park).
  • Dreams of My Russian Summers by Andrei Makine. Zhivagos.
  • Mama Day by Gloria Naylor. South.
  • The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.  Tippen Restaurant & Essence of India.
  • Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Land. Bangkok Restaurant.
  • The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. Kabul House.
  • Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey by Ernesto Guevara.Tango Sur.
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. Barcelona Tapas.
  • Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carol. Leonidas

Year 3

  • Feb. The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason.  La Piazza (River Forest)
  • Mar. Chocolat by Joanne Harris - La Bocca della Veritas (plans for Lutz's aborted)
  • Apr. The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Opart Thai and Cafe Selmarie
  • May. When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka. Matsu Shita
  • June. Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene. Cafe LaGuardia.
  • July. The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay. Mirabel.
  • Aug. Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (Reprise). Fadge's House.
  • Sept. Goodbye Mr. Chips by James Hilton. The Red Lion Pub.
  • Oct. Lost Horizon by James Hilton. Phoenix.
  • Nov. The Ninth Life of Louis Drax by Liz Jensen. Bistrot Margot.

This interview first ran in June 2007

© June 2007.

If you feel that your book group has something unique to offer, and you would like to tell others about it, please contact us with brief details, and maybe we can feature you in the future.

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