Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Hardly ever by the book

Why women (and sometimes men) love to talk about books


Jeanne Wright, left, Luanne Holmes and Jeanne Koleno engage in lively debate during the monthly meeting of their nine member women’s book club. The book under scrutiny was “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” by David Wroblewski. Photo by David N. Seelig

The Stranger Than Fiction Book Club meets at di Vine wine bar in Hailey. The 10 to 12 women have been together for five years and range in age from early 20s to late 50s. One is a teacher, one a property manager. Another is an entrepreneur. There is an aesthetician, a caterer, an editor and a writer. They clearly enjoy each other's company, and keeping on topic amid the cheese fondue, wine bottles and babies proves tricky.

A favorite pastime, and let it be said, distraction, is to "cast" the film of the book. This kind of discussion can get heated as members discuss not just the varying appropriateness of actors to a possible role but what is going on in their personal lives, too.

"So, when do we start talking about the book?" a newcomer may utter after a detailed discussion of which actor left which actress and for whom. That line is the name of another of the approximately 30 book clubs operating in the Wood River Valley today. Some have been in existence for two decades. All have in common the most integral of reasons to exist: a desire to share a love of reading, sometimes wine and often gossip.

In this cyber-crazy world, book clubs are enjoying an unprecedented resurgence. Reading is fun and sociable, book clubs proclaim, and the get-togethers keep one in the real world. It's a great way to connect with friends, old and new, even those without a Facebook account. While book clubs existed before Oprah Winfrey and her eponymous creation, she is largely responsible for their success in this digital age, bringing literature to television and reaching a viewing audience that had long ago left the bound-and-printed word behind.

So popular is the book club renaissance that today books come with prepackaged book club discussion topics. It was only a matter of time before books about book clubs would come along. To wit: There is "The Jane Austen Book Club" by Kay Fowler, which became a movie, "Bronte's Book Club," by Kristina Gregory, and "The Mother-Daughter Book Club" series by Heather Vogel Frederick. The latter has spawned many actual clubs of the same name, one of which exists in the valley.

Book clubs are most often—though not exclusively—made up of women; friends from work, through their hobbies, children or neighborhoods. The traditional cast of characters is a bunch of girlfriends who want an excuse to gather and chat about more than just their jobs or love lives, and occasionally a group of book lovers who want more inspirational choices. They might meet in a coffee shop, a bookstore, a wine bar, on someone's porch or in a living room. Wine or some other treat is usually involved. Generally the host for the next month will choose the book to read. In most clubs it is book no one has yet read. Meg Mazzocchi of Chapter One Bookstore in Ketchum says each club has its own set of guidelines. For instance, the East Fork Marching and Chowder Book Club, for men and women, reads exclusively historical nonfiction. More Than A Book Club Book Club reads two books per month (this month they chose books with a central theme of the Amazon river).

Mazzocchi herself belongs to a club that consists entirely of women who moved to the Wood River Valley in the 1970s. Churches have book clubs, too. Light on the Mountain Spiritual Center reads books with a lesson, such as Eckhart Tolle's "The New Earth" and recently Michael A. Singer's "Untethered Soul."

One of the oldest clubs in the valley is known as Qui Legit. Its choices have "stood the test of time," said core member Colleen Daly, executive director of the Community Library in Ketchum. In existence for more than 18 years, the club meets the first Monday of each month. They serve soup, wine, coffee and desert and the hostess is responsible for supplying a bio of the author.

"You can't recommend a book if you haven't read it in case it's a dud," Daly said of the club's rules. Not only does this help weed-out uninspiring choices, but it manages to keep members on their toes. Daly said one of the biggest surprises for her was an Icelandic book about the struggles of poor farmers in early 20th-century Iceland ("Independent People" by Halldor Laxnees).

Kristine Bretall, marketing director of Sun Valley Center for the Arts, belongs to two book clubs—one, informally known as the Book of the Whine Club, for 11 years.

"It's very casual," Bretall said. "We read contemporary fiction in paperback. It's a great way for us to get together. Sometimes people will say, 'Let's just get together without the books.' But, no, we need a reason or then we wouldn't do it."

Indeed, for many people the gathering is the main, though not the exclusive, purpose.

Bretall's other club takes a more strenuous approach. Associated with the Sun Valley Center for the Arts, they allow a half hour of chitchat, and then they settle down to business. Someone generally discusses the historical time period of the book. Kristin Poole, The Center's artistic director, will speak about the time in an artistic context and someone else may delve into the political events of the day.

The club began with poetry as its focus, but has moved on to literature, including "Anna Karenina" and works by Oscar Wilde and Sir Salman Rushdie.

"One of the members, Gail Wilke, is rigorous in her approach to literature," said Bretall. "She keeps us on track about how we approach the work. This January we read 'The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao' by Juno Diaz who spoke here in November. It was great to understand as we read what the author was intending."

"It's such a great mix," Wilke said of the club's seven members. "Women who have careers, as well as three retired ladies. There's a real energy there."

There is a tendency to assume book clubs just read obvious books (current hot picks include "The Help" and "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.") Not necessarily so. There are hundreds of thousands of books to read and this surge in book clubbing has been good to the book business.

Many book clubs are full and are often by invitation only. But there's also the option of starting a new book club. Just gather a few friends, decide on a theme, or book, and begin. Then everyone invites a few more friends and it grows from there. Another option is to put an ad in the newspaper. Who knows whom you'll meet and, just as importantly, what you'll read.

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