BookBrowse interviews This month, Melissa Hunt joins us to chat about The Tortoises and the Hares - an interstate, multi-generational book club, who've found a novel way to keep both slow and fast readers happy in the same group! about all aspects of their book club.

Book Club Interview (see full list)

This month, Melissa Hunt joins us to chat about The Tortoises and the Hares - an interstate, multi-generational book club, who've found a novel way to keep both slow and fast readers happy in the same group!

Hello Melissa, thanks for chatting with us today.  Please tell us a little about your group.

We are an interstate book club.  Some members are from in and around Pittsburgh, PA and others from Madison, OH (40 miles East of Cleveland).  We have been together since November 2004.  We started when my mother, myself and a friend of my mother's were passing books back and forth, but found we couldn't discuss them because we never read them at the same time! There are four regular members, one non-reader and four other members who are new or sporadically attend; and we just picked up three new members for our upcoming July picnic! We are all females, ranging in age from early 30s to early 60s.

Left to Right: Bev, Pam (Melissa's mom), Meryl Ann and Melissa.

Do you have a name, and how often do you manage to get together?

Our informal name is the Tortoises and the Hares because we have fast and slow readers.  We meet every other month and choose two books to read. 

Interesting!  So do you all read both books?
Members can read one or both of the books.  We have a couple of members that don't read at all, but just like to belong. 

The books are picked at random, but often there is a something that ties them together, for example Second Glance by Jodi Picoult and The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier, both involved a world beyond our earthly one.  Choke by Chuck Palahniuk and the The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho involved characters at either end of the spiritual spectrum trying to find themselves.  The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards and The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd, both were about secrets and how they can affect relationships, and about being true to yourself not only for yourself but for your relationships as well.

What's your favorite thing about belonging to your book club?

I enjoy getting to read books that I would not have chosen on my own and I enjoy the conversations, not only about the books but the tangential conversations as well.  We have many differing opinions but very little animosity.

Tell us a little about your meetings?

Our meetings are informal and casual.  We meet on Sundays at midday, every other month (or every 6 weeks).  We used to alternate our meetings between Ohio and Pittsburgh, with someone hosting at her home.  The hostess would prepare food and usually everyone would bring something.  Mac and Cheese started to become a regular favorite, so we almost named ourselves the Mac and Cheesers!  As you can imagine, living in the Northeast, travel in the winter becomes difficult and food preparation started to get out of hand, so we now meet halfway in Canfield, OH at my cousin's coffee shop, Peaberry's.  After we've discussed the books we select the two new books for the next meeting.

Have you considered having men join the book club?

We don't necessarily exclude men, but we don't specifically ask them to join either.  Most of the men in our lives are not readers, but I don't think we would be opposed to a male joining us – the different perspective would be interesting.

How would you describe your group's personality?

We are a very laid back group, very open minded and enjoy laughing and eating – lots!

So, food is integral to your meetings? :)

Essential! Our hostesses always had great food and Peaberry's offers great sandwiches and pastries!

Does one person lead the meetings or do you all just pitch in?

By default, I am the leader – I send the emails and keep the organization of the book selections, but at the meetings we typically will have the members whose books were chosen speak first about the books and why they chose it or why they liked it.  Usually everyone gives their basic opinion about the book and we read specific passages or lines that struck a cord with the reader – this often leads to detailed conversations either about the book or often a tangential subject such as politics, religion or social issues.

Tell us about the sort of books you read?

Our selections are primarily suspense and literary fiction.  We've read memoirs.  The only rule is NO romance! 

How do you decide which books to read?

Each member submits three book selections.  At each meeting we draw two selections from a hat (except the members whose picks had just been chosen – their titles stay out until the following meeting).

Which books have generated the most interesting discussions?

  • The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom – who would your five people be?
  • Blue Angel by Francine Prose – can animals change their sex? 
  • The Betrayal by Beverly Lewis – Amish lifestyles.
  • A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell– difficult life of the Italian Jews during WWII.
  • Angry Housewives Eating Bon-Bons by Lorna Landvik  – plan a winter snowball fight book club event!
  • Widow of the South by Robert Hicks – Horrors of the Civil War.
  • The Girls by Lori Lansens – conjoined twins, sisters and bonds.
  • Second Glance by Jodi Picoult – ghosts, are they real & preimplantation genetic diagnosis.
  • The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier – afterlife.
  • Choke by Chuck Palahniuk – addiction and recovery
  • The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho – what is your Personal Legend?
  • The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards - how secrets destroy.
  • The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd - how people must be true to themselves first.

Out of these which were the group's favorites?

Skinny Dip
by Carl Hiaasen, The Girls, Second Glance, The Alchemist, Memory Keeper's Daughter and The Mermaid Chair.

Any that bombed?

Dress Your Family in Corduroy by David Sedaris -
few of us read it, but those who did I think didn't appreciate his humor or writing style - he seemed more to be whining and we didn't find it particularly funny.  Also, Widow of the South was not a favorite, but we appreciated it. We enjoyed the fact that it provoked thought and conversation about a historical time. The author of the book is an historian not a writer, which will often make the difference between a good and an excellent book!

Another one was Choke by Chuck Palahniuk.  Two members actually didn't read it or stopped reading it half-way because they were not comfortable with it.  Two others finished it and the discussion was lively enough that the other two wished in fact that they had read it, even if they weren't enjoying it.

It would seem that the books that have generated good discussions aren't necessarily your favorites.  For example, you mention Widow of the South as one of the books that generated the best discussions, but it wasn't a favorite.  Are there any books that most of you enjoyed but you found difficult to discuss?

Monkee Wrench by P.J. Tracy and Just One Look by Harlan Coben are two examples of books we enjoyed but were difficult to discuss. Sometimes the suspense/mystery books simply do not provide enough substance to spark conversation.  Skinny Dip was like this.  It was a fun read and we all enjoyed it, but it lacked any depth to have a lengthy conversation.  At least Sugar Cookie Murder by Joanne Fluke provided some recipes to try out at the meeting!

Does your group have a preference about whether you buy or borrow books, and whether you read hardcovers or paperbacks?

Some of us buy, some borrow. We read both hardcovers and paperbacks.

How do you communicate between meetings?

We communicate via email, but we just agreed to use a website for book clubs: I can list events, possible club picks and conversations for all members to review!

Are there any fun ideas that you've tried that might be of interest to other clubs who are looking for ideas to liven things up?

We did a picnic this past July, that was a great time! We're having our 2nd annual picnic next month!

Are there any tips that you'd like to pass on to other book clubs?

Always let people speak their minds. Often people fear a book club is like a literary graduate class and fear what they have to say isn't profound enough to share! Encourage them to share. Often we simply read phrases that strike a chord, it doesn't have be deep, sometimes it's just because you liked how it made your feel, or you like the imagery or the memory it invoked. Literature is art – there is no right or wrong, it's all about how a book can touch each individual reader.

Very wise words! Thank you to you and all the Tortoises and the Hares for sharing insights about your book club. We wish you many more happy years reading together!

This interview first ran in July 2007

© July 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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