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Book Clubs Respond

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Thanks to all of you who responded to our invitation to tell us about the book that sparked your club's best discussion. We've collected your messages and put them on Book World's Web site (www.washingtonpost.com/books). Here are a few excerpts to entice you to look at the submissions and to add to the list, which you can do through the comments section at the end of it.

* The book that sparked our group's best discussion had to have been The Liars' Club, by Mary Karr. It's a funny, razor-edged memoir, in which the author looks back at her upbringing in a swampy East Texas refinery town with a volatile, defiantly loving family. An inheritance was squandered, endless bottles emptied, and guns leveled at the deserving and undeserving. Although some of us in the group were reluctant to read a book from the memoir genre, it nevertheless pushed a surprising number of our own buttons.

-- Julie Philpot, Jill Reuter, and Kiki Roddy, Washington, D.C.

* No matter what the book being discussed, two years later Mario Vargas Llosa's In Praise of the Stepmother is still mentioned at meetings. That makes it not only the most discussed but also the longest discussion.

-- Kathleen Nolan, Arnold, Md.

* The book that sparked our best discussion was Iain Pears's The Dream of Scipio, a novel in triptych form. It has unity of place, a small town in southern France/Gaul, and three distinct periods -- the dissolution of the Roman empire, the beginning of the Dark Ages and the Nazi occupation. The novel poses the question: What is a civilized man to do when civilization as he knows it is disintegrating? One of the many nice surprises of a book group is reading some fantastic books that would have otherwise gone undiscovered and unread.

-- Catherine Krebs, Alexandria, Va.

Others submitted:

* Our book club of Cobb Island, MD. has been in existence since August 1997 and we are now on our 87th book. It started with 4 people who kept finding themselves standing outside the local post office discussing what we were reading. We keep our numbers small (6-9) so that we can each have ample opportunity to talk. Our current book is the biography of Gertrude Bell by Georgina Howell and we meet every 6-7 weeks. When I asked for nominations of books that yielded the best discussions I received two:

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak yielded a particularly interesting discussion because one of our members grew up in Europe and could give us an especially rich picture of what it was like to be a child during these events. And An Island Out of Time: A Memoir of Smith Island in the Chesapeake by Tom Horton was also intriguing because our own island has undergone a transition of watermen-based economics to a mix of all kinds of people and t he location and events were something we could relate to.

It was our first book.

-- Terry Hedrick

P.S. Oops, more from the Cobb Island Book Club. Right after sending you our suggestions I received one more vote for An Island Out of Time by Tom Horton and a suggestion that I give you more info on our "rules" of operation.

We don't allow fancy food to avoid food inflation taking over -- just cookies (store bought is fine) and coffee, tea and/or juice.

Books categorized as science fiction, mysteries and public policy tomes are forbidden. The last is to avoid destroying friendships. The first two we decided we read frequently enough on our own and some members don't like them at all.

And every member has a veto right to nix a suggestion because reading it would be too undesirable. So far no one has had to exercise it; expressing reservations has been enough.

Meetings rotate from house to house and so does the role of the discussion leader. The discussion leader may do extensive work to develop information on the book and author or choose to just keep the discussion going if it lags (not likely!) One member actually decorated her house to resemble a time period in China.

* Our book group has been meeting for 11 years, about every 6 weeks -- we are up to Book #82. We call ourselves the Male Book Group (6 guys concentrating on fiction selections). Three of us are from Arlington; one from DC; and two from Loudoun County. We have delegated one fellow to write up the "minutes" of each meeting (a compilation of responses from each person, obtained after the meeting, including a review of the book and the restaurant chosen for the meeting). To that end, it was easy to look through our minutes and find a novel that sparked a great discussion.

Our choice is Empire of the Sun, by J.G. Ballard. It's an autobiographical novel that deals with the time that Ballard was held prisoner, as a child, by the Japanese, just outside Shanghai. Ballard tells the story through the eyes of Jim, who is eleven when he is separated from his parents and imprisoned in 1941, and 14 when the book ends in 1945.

The discussion went well, we think, because (1) Ballard is a masterful writer, with a fine narrative technique; (2) the story of man's inhumanity to man sparked further discussion about history and different cultures and attitudes. The book worked on many levels - as a literary work, a history, and a memoir.

-- Bill Fogarty

* Book: Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas L. Friedman.

Although this is not my book club, I was there to see what had to be their most notable meeting. It is my hope that some of the others write a more

In the fall of 1991, my wife's book club was organizing a meeting to discuss From Beirut to Jerusalem. A neighbor of a book club member had reported from the Middle East, heard about the club meeting and offered to moderate the discussion. The group was begun with mothers of young children with a shared interest. A knowledgeable speaker spurred the group to invite others and the meeting grew from the normal 8-10 to over 20 including spouses, friends and neighbors. Many were hopeful that the upcoming Madrid Conference offered some hope of Palestinian autonomy, and the timing seemed right.

As the discussion wore on, it became clear that this group included many perspectives. Most vocal and absolutist was an Egyptian-American woman married to a Palestinian. As the meeting wore on, it became clear that for her, nothing short of a removal of all Israelis to points unknown and dissolution of Israel would be sufficient. The conversation became very pointed until some of the guests stormed out. Friendships and nerves were shattered.

A move from reality to fiction took hold.

-- Tony Pappas, Bethesda, Md.

* Hi! I am a member of a 10-women book group that has been meeting for 2 years. We try to read a mix of different types of books, notable for their strength in a given area, i.e., beautiful prose, interesting memoirs, exposes of different time periods, classics, etc. We all love "new fiction" but read it on our own, as we feel it does not provide as much fodder for discussion as other types of books do. We met this evening (to discuss Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, which was universally enjoyed and provided a length, multi-layered discussion) and agreed that our most fascinating books so far have been: Blindness by Jose Saramago; What is the What, by Dave Eggers; and Snow in Havana, by Carlos Eire. Also mentioned were Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Paul Farmer, and My Antonia by Willa Cather. Hope this is helpful to others!

-- Leslie Galen

* Hi,

Our club has been going on for about 3 years or so. By far, the best discussion was generated by The Omnivore's Dilemma. It has been life altering in varying degrees for most of us and has continued to generate discussion when we run into one another. We are planning to visit a small, truly organic family run farm and are considering sharing costs of food and livestock. We live in an affluent neighborhood in Northern Virginia and therefore it is about more conscious eating rather than food budgeting.

Thanks for the invitation to participate with you.

-- Paula Lucas

* Our book club has existed for thirteen years. It started out as a "classics" club, but now incorporates all genres of books. My favorite book was "Memoirs of a Geisha" by Arthur Golden.

-- Karla Vernon, Vienna, Va.

* Our Capitol Hill Book Club has been meeting for over 12 years. One of our best discussions was about the book, "Waiting for the Barbarians," by J. M. Coetzee

-- Beverly Pringle, Ph.D.

* My book club has been meeting since May of 1980, though I didn't join the group until the late 80's. Based in Arlington, VA, the group is an eclectic collection of School teachers & administrators, government and private industry. Everybody works, though many are now retired. Member's age range from 40's to 90.

One of our more memorable discussions was in July of 1997, when we read 'I never came to you in white', by Judith Farr. The imaginative novel about Emily Dickinson was enjoyed by most of the group, though as always the best discussions are when a few people don't like it. As the conversation turned to poetry. Judy, one of the book group founders, shared some of the poetry she had written with us, and just glowed with happiness, as she had been trying to convince the group to read some poetry.

Our book selections are chosen by recommendations and then a group vote. They range from authors such as Ernest Hemingway, Dickens and Flauber, to Anne Tyler, Ian McEwan and Gerldine Brooks. The only requirement is that the book be available in paperback. There are about 20 women in the group, though not all attend every meeting. Our Christmas meeting is always a dinner at one gal's house in the district, and we do a gift exchange and discuss a 'small' book. I have to say this discussion is always the highlight of my holiday season.

I've attached a copy of our booklist for your enjoyment.

-- Christine R. Coker

* The most notorious book picked by my book club was chosen by one member in 1990 (before I joined). The book, Dale Brown's THE SILVER TOWER, was apparently not read by the person who picked it before he chose it. The novel consisted of loving discussions of weaponry. No plot or character development stood in the way of the book's lengthy discussion of many, many weapons.

Ever since then, THE SILVER TOWER acquired the nickname of "The Technothriller" in my club, so that when someone picked a bad book, the response usually was "Yes, this is bad--but it's not as The Technothriller."

-- Martin Morse Wooster, Silver Spring, Md.

* Our group of 10 friends became really bonded after reading "Women Who Run with the Wolves" by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. That was 15 years ago in 1993, and we have been meeting twice monthly ever since! We meet in San Mateo, California where we continue to refer to our group as "the Wolves" even though we have gone on to read many other books together.

-- Laurel

* Hi Book World Eds.

My book club is the Mantua Book Club in Fairfax, Virginia. We have been meeting for 10 years (estab. Feb 1998). We began with 6 and now have an e-mailing list of about 35 bookish mostly women. We read everything: nonfiction, classic literature (including Shakespeare), contemporary fiction, and even a bestseller or two.

The book that sparked my group's best discussion was Theodore Dreiser's SISTER CARRIE. When we first chose it, I thought to myself this is going to be so dated, but boy was I wrong. Though moralistic, as one would anticipate of a novel published in 1900, its compelling narrative and vividly described characters made for a lively, long, and surprisingly relevant discussion. Dreiser really delivered on this one -- and I would highly recommend it to other groups.

-- Marilyn Feldman, Fairfax Va.

* Our mother-daughter book club in Alexandria, Va., started when our daughters were in 4th grade (8 years ago) and sadly trickled off during high school. We had many good years, however, reading great books that girls and moms all enjoyed, everything from classics like Jane Eyre to modern young-adult fiction like Speak. Our best discussion took place when discussing the book "Peace Like a River" by Leif Enger. We were discussing the fact that in the book, one of the main characters (the father) performs several miracles, and one of our members commented that those scenes weren't very believable, as of course there are no miracles. Several other moms were quite surprised and said that they firmly believed in miracles and that those scenes were their favorites. We then went around the room and girls and mothers all presented their own opinions on the miracle issue. Mothers were often surprised to hear their own daughter's answers, and vice versa. That was a great meeting.

-- Jill Eichner, Alexandria

* Our book club began 10 yrs. ago in April. However, we didn't select a name for several years and are now known as the Readers' Roundtable. We meet at the library in New Holland, Pa., which is approximately 12 miles from Lancaster, Pa.

It's a difficult choice to decide on which book sparked the best discussion -- a tie between The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (discussed in 2006) and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (discussed in 2007).

"The Shadow of the Wind" appealed to us for a number of reasons. It's about a repository of dead books; the historical aspects were fantastic; plot; relationships of the characters; mystery and a love story. One gets several genres in one novel. We wish he would write another book.

Glass Castle provided a meaningful discussion about the problems faced by the children of parents who had a different set of values and unusual ideas of how to bring up their children. Fascinating to learn how well the children coped with caring for the parents starting at an early age. It was horrifying to realize the mother had an inheritance and yet did not use it to feed her children.

My husband and I lived and worked in the Washington area for over 30 years and retired to Lancaster county. We still like to read the Washington Post and Book World.

-- Vivian Zecoski

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