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Posts Tagged ‘book clubs’

rtfebc iran books persia persepolis

I’m participating this year in the the Reading Together Family Exploration Book Club over on Facebook, co-hosted by Jessica and Sheila. Together, we are reading a variety of children’s and young adult lit focused on a handful of themes and/or countries: Korea, the Arctic, Australia and others.

I’m the co-host for the months of May and June, and our theme is Iran.

Each theme includes a picture book, a middle-grade novel and a young adult novel. Our picks for Iran are Forty Fortunes by Aaron Shepard, Shadow Spinner by Susan Fletcher, and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, respectively. The idea is to read these books with your kids and talk to them about countries and cultures they might not otherwise encounter – but anyone is welcome to participate, whether or not you’re a parent (I’m not).

Feel free to join the Facebook group and participate in our discussions, or just pick up the books and read along with us. We’re discussing Forty Fortunes and Shadow Spinner this month, and we’ll discuss Persepolis in June. I’m a little late in getting this post up, but it’s not too late to join us!

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the bookstore lenox ma

Despite my deep and copiously documented love of reading, I’ve not had very good luck with book clubs.

I joined one – a group of smart, compassionate women – when I still lived in west Texas, but I ended up moving away a few months later when my husband landed his job in Boston. A couple of years ago, two Boston girlfriends and I launched a book club, and we read some great books – Unbroken, Jane Eyre, The Weird Sisters, The Night Circus, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.  But we lost a few members due to busy schedules and other commitments, and the group eventually petered out.

But this summer, at the behest of my friend Hannah, I joined what we call the “occasional book club,” made up of 10 or so women scattered around New England, from Boston to Hartford to Rhode Island. (Hannah lives in the Boston area, but is from Rhode Island, and she is the common link between us: all the other members know her somehow.)

We meet every couple of months to discuss a book and munch on delicious food. This summer, on a sweltering July night, the menu consisted largely of ice cream. (Not that I’m complaining!) At our most recent meeting, a brilliant and wide-ranging discussion of Gaudy Night, the spread ranged from wine and candied nuts to squares of sea-salt dark chocolate, to crisp slices of bell pepper and apples dipped in hummus and caramel dip, respectively.

On the surface, we have relatively little in common except our ages (and our various connections to Hannah). We are artists, writers, librarians, office workers, therapists, stay-at-home mothers. Most of us claim some kind of Christian faith, though our backgrounds and current practices vary widely. But we all love to read and talk about books. Both meetings I’ve attended have sparked deep, thought-provoking discussions, ranging from questions of style and structure to the larger issues at the heart of the books we read.

It’s often difficult to pinpoint what makes a group work, or causes it to fall apart. In this case, the low-pressure nature of these meetings is definitely a plus: no one has to scramble to read a new book and make fresh travel plans every month. The occasional nature of the club means it feels like a treat when we do get together, and our diverse backgrounds and viewpoints make for fascinating discussion.

So many of the connections I’ve made here in Boston are different than I’d envisioned: looser, perhaps, but also rich in unexpected ways. This book club definitely fits both descriptors.

Are you part of a book club? I’m always keen to hear others’ experiences.

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mother daughter book club series heather vogel frederick

I discovered the Mother-Daughter Book Club series by accident, stumbling onto the first book at Books-a-Million in West Texas. I was in the mood for light summer reading, and the cheery pink-covered paperback promised just that: a tale of four middle-school girls and their mothers in Concord, Massachusetts, who form a book club and read Little Women (my childhood favorite!) together.

The daughters are wary of their mothers’ project at first, but they end up loving the book and each other’s company so much that they decide to keep the club going. Five books later, they’re smack in the middle of high school, and with their sixth adventure hitting shelves next month, I decided to visit them in Concord again.

Narrated in turn by the girls (bookish Emma, farm girl Jess, fashionista Megan and tomboy athlete Cassidy), the books give us several perspectives on the authors and books the club reads. The literary musings (and “fun facts” collected by Emma’s mother, who is a librarian) are interwoven with the daily dramas of middle and high school, life in small-town New England with their families, and each girl’s private struggles and dreams.

These girls (even snooty Becca, who joins the club in seventh grade and finally gets to share in the narration in tenth grade) are innocent, perhaps a little naive. There are no drugs or curse words, and very little rebellion, in the books. But their sunny simplicity matches their club’s classic reads, and keeps the focus on the books rather than on any serious teen angst. (After Little Women, they move on to Anne of Green Gables; Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs; Pride and Prejudice; and my beloved Betsy-Tacy series.)

All five daughters have mostly intact families and loving relationships with their mothers, even though (like all teenagers everywhere) they are embarrassed by their parents sometimes. Despite being rather sheltered, they are thoroughly modern, with cell phones and crushes on boys, and a disastrous fashion blog plays an important role in Pies & Prejudice, the fourth book.

I love these books partly because the characters and setting (not New England, but a friendly small town) remind me of my childhood. I grew up with two parents who loved each other (and me) deeply; I fought with my sister sometimes, but she was always one of my best friends; and we could hardly go to the grocery store without running into someone we knew. I navigated the insecurities and drama of adolescence with the help of my parents, a handful of close friends, and my beloved books.

And that is the other reason I love these books: they embody the idea that literature can change your life, or at least infuse it with more joy, more sparkle, more zest for living, more courage.

None of the girls, except Emma (daughter of a librarian, and an aspiring writer) care much for books when the series begins. Jess loves animals and singing and science; Megan designs and sews clothes, and loves to shop; and Cassidy is a hockey nut who’s still grappling with the death of her father and a cross-country move. They don’t expect to enjoy Little Women (or Anne, or Daddy-Long-Legs), but all of them eventually fall in love with the heroines of these classics, realizing that despite differences of time and geography, Jo March and Anne Shirley and Elizabeth Bennet face the same struggles they do.

The book club motif gives the characters plenty of chances to discuss the books, which means they not only gush about the heroes and heroines, but learn to appreciate the minor characters, from Mrs. Rachel Lynde to Mr. Collins, and Betsy Ray’s merry crowd of friends. Similarly, the minor characters in this series are great fun, from the girls’ parents and siblings to their boyfriends, a couple of grandparents, teachers and friends. It’s a pleasure to revisit Concord (even more so since I’ve now been there myself), and spend time with not only the five narrators, but the whole cast of characters.

If you’re in the mood for some frothy, literary fun, I highly recommend these books. The girls are tackling Jane Eyre next, and I can’t wait to visit England – and hang out in Concord – with them.

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Last week, my book club met to discuss The Weird Sisters, Eleanor Brown’s lovely debut novel about three adult sisters who return to the small Ohio college town where they grew up. Their father is a Shakespeare professor, singularly focused on his topic, and as a result the entire family (and the book) are steeped in the Bard.

Eleanor generously offered to join us via Skype (though she was traveling and also fighting a cold – what a trooper!). We talked about siblings, birth order, family dynamics and writing in first-person-plural voice. She confessed that while she did a ton of research for the book, she’s not a Shakespeare buff – in fact, she didn’t “get” him until seeing several of his plays in England while she was in graduate school.

“When I taught English, I refused to teach Shakespeare,” Eleanor added, “because I didn’t want to be the one who ruined Shakespeare for these kids.” That remark prompted a slew of reminiscences (and eye-rolling) from all of us about being forced to read Romeo and Juliet in ninth or tenth grade. (My college Shakespeare professor, on the first day of class, proclaimed, “We are not reading Romeo and Juliet. I hate it, and besides all of you have read it already!”)

We also talked about odd Shakespeare productions, referencing a very funny scene in The Weird Sisters in which the family discusses crazy productions they’ve seen, including an all-nude version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which, fortunately, Eleanor said she made up). Abi recalled seeing a 1970s-themed production of Midsummer as a high school student (which, given the content of the play, actually worked). I remembered a decidedly strange production of Macbeth, set in what I think was 1950s Deep South America, at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. (Shotguns, suits and rotary phones. It was bizarre.)

But my first encounter with Shakespeare came long before I ever saw him on stage – before I had any idea how famous he was, before I even knew his plays were set in verse. I discovered Shakespeare during long Ohio summers, sprawled across one of two beds in the upstairs room that was once my mother’s, languid summer breezes stirring the thick, humid air outside, box fans whirring in the windows. I discovered him through pen-and-ink illustrations, tinted with orange and jade green, through mischievous fairies and rollicking amateur actors and a sprite who had more energy than sense.

midsummer night's dream fairies titania my book house

Titania sleeps in a flower bed

midsummer night's dream bottom donkey fairies my book house

Bottom and the fairies

I’ve written before about the My Book House series – a treasure trove of folktales, nursery rhymes, Bible stories and adaptations of classic stories from around the world. I especially loved the middle books in the series, stuffed full of fairy tales, and I came back to this simple prose version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream every year. (And then – a wonderful bonus – turned the page to read about Felix Mendelssohn and how he composed the musical score after reading the play as a teenager.)

felix mendelssohn music midsummer night's dream my book house

Felix and his sister Fanny

I came back to Shakespeare years later, in school, reading Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, Hamlet, Macbeth and some sonnets. I acted in a production of The Rude Mechanicals (a crude adaptation of Midsummer) in ninth grade; the acting was pretty terrible, I admit, but we had fun. I took the aforementioned Shakespeare course in college, and saw a half-dozen summer Shakespeare productions put on by my college’s fabulous theatre department.

I don’t consider myself a Shakespeare buff – the Bard’s plots are often confusing, his language ornate and sometimes outdated to my ears. But I admire him deeply, the beauty and power of his words and the way his work has endured over centuries. And I’ve had a soft spot for this particular story ever since I was that little girl reading about Titania and the fairies on those long-ago summer days.

fairies midsummer night's dream my book house

When and where did you first encounter Shakespeare? And what’s the weirdest Shakespeare production you’ve ever seen?

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