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Book groups: add this to your list

By Rebecca Arrington

Book groups are as unique as the titles they choose to read. Some groups are by invitation only, tapping waiting lists only when members die. Others are geared toward women, or mystery lovers, or formed randomly through newspaper ads. No matter how they come to be, it was apparent at the March 23 book festival panel discussion on "Tips for Book Groups" that these groups are plentiful locally.

The crowd at the New Dominion Book Shop spilled into the upper and lower staircases and the landing, after all the seats were taken, eager to hear the advice of panelists Mariflo Stephens, Mickey Pearlman, Karen Jaegerman Collins and Ruth Klippstein.

Stephens, a writer who teaches at Hampden-Sydney College, has been hosting book groups at New Dominion "long before Oprah," she said. "I choose works that will generate a lot of talk."

Once, when she thought her group -- many of whom are retired professors -- was reading too many modern works, she assigned a classic, Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. "We all suffered through the Anna Karenina bruise on our chest" from reading the heavy tome while reclining, she said.

Pearlman, also a writer, thought her mother's 40-year book group membership was an anomaly. She discovered her assumption was wrong while interviewing people for two other book projects and seized on the opportunity. The outcome was What to Read: The Essential Guide for Reading Group Members and Other Book Lovers, now in its second edition. Pearlman has included Gone with the Wind on the book list, but has no plans to add Bridges of Madison County, she said.

Collins, a U.Va. alumna, became a book-group member through a newspaper ad. About 30 people showed up for the first meeting, she said. They decided to read Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which eliminated about two-thirds of the group. As it has evolved, the group has learned that just because a story's good doesn't mean it generates discussion.

"We try to select books that will get people to talk," said Collins, who describes her group as "thankfully leaderless and structureless." They meet about once a month. Over coffee and dessert they choose books for the coming two months.

Collins said nonfiction doesn't generate a great deal of discussion, but readers find it worthwhile. Her group also reads poetry and short stories, with each member choosing favorites to share.

Klippstein is a 12-year veteran of a book group, rooted in a Scottsville commune. Made up of women who read only women writers, it, too, is a structureless group, though one person takes the lead each month by researching the writer and the chosen book.

The group also takes advantage of writers who visit nearby colleges or who live in the area. Local writer Susan Tyler Hitchcock has visited, as has writer Sue Hubble, who recently spoke at U.Va. "We served her lunch," Klippstein said. Her group also holds retreats, and once a year chooses a young adult book to read.

Here are some other tips the panelists had for book groups:

  • Read book-group books differently than when just reading for pleasure. Collins and Stephens do a lot of dog-earing and underlining in their books.

  • Ask the members of your book group to prepare three questions on each book they read.

  • Read favorite passages aloud at book-group meetings.

  • People who want to read John Grisham shouldn't be in a group with those who like Toni Morrison.

  • Don't talk about the plot.

  • Don't ask, "Did you like the book?²

  • Explore the writer's use of symbols and space. Pearlman noted that small spaces, such as traveling in a car or being in a kitchen, often serve as de facto prisons for female characters in literature.

  • Avoid the "cousin Carol² syndrome, where book-group members draw similarities between the character and real-life persons. It can chew up 30 minutes of what should be reserved for discussion of the book.

  • Don't study biographical data about the writer and look for connections with the characters about which he or she is writing.

  • Never pass a bookstore or library or book page in the newspaper without skimming or taking a copy of the book list.

Panelists recommended several books, including Lois Lowry's The Giver. The best-selling young adult book for the past three years, it ponders what the perfect Utopian life is. Also touted was The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant. "The ultimate book-group book,² according to Pearlman, it imagines the life of Jacob's only daughter, who has only one paragraph written about her in the Bible. The nonfiction work they endorsed was Black Dog of Fate, by Peter Balakian, a history of the Armenian Holocaust of 1915 in which 1.5 million Armenians were killed in one day by the Turks.

Paraphrasing Eudora Welty, who read at the New Dominion Book Shop in 1989, Stephens said, "A good book is like an iceberg. What you see is interesting, and there's probably something beneath the surface that should be examined.²

At next year's festival, March 21 through 25, a book will be selected for area groups to read and be ready to discuss at the book-group panel. The author whose book is chosen will also be invited to attend.

Go to for the latest in book festival programming.

Writing local history has its highs and lows

The changing face of book publishing


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