Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Building a Great Book Club

How can you make sure your book club is a great one? I've been part of groups that were nothing more than chat sessions. Others have chosen books that don't lend themselves well to discussion or have a narrow appeal. And others have been fantastic experiences.

Below are ten tips for giving your book club the best chance it's got for being great, as well as a list of possible titles to get you started.

1. Have a regular meeting time.
For example, always meet on the third Wednesday of each month. This way members can schedule ahead and put it into their calendars, and there aren't any surprises. You'll have better attendance this way.

2. Stay Connected with E-mail.
Compile your group members' e-mail addresses. Have your group leader send out reminders and updates to everyone. You can also set up a Yahoo!-type group where book club members can ask one another questions about the reading, ask for copies of the book to borrow, and so on.

E-mail also allows members to RSVP, which is very helpful for the hostess in knowing how many to prepare for. And of course, in the event of a cancellation or meeting time change, everyone can be informed with a mouse click.

3. Avoid the Holiday Rush.
To avoid the craziness that Thanksgiving and Christmas time bring, instead of a regular meeting in December, hold a Saturday brunch early in the month. And instead of expecting everyone to get a book read (again, something hard to do sometimes with the rush), have members bring a book to give away in the classic "White Elephant" game.

My book group has done this for years, and this last December, the leader added a twist: bring two or three books you already own but are willing to give away. It was a great way to recycle, save money, and still have fun.

4. Plan ahead.
Making sure you have a title and host home for each month well in advance. Some book clubs enjoy pre-selecting titles for the full year. Others make selections a month or two in advance.

You could even hold an annual meeting to select the year's titles, with all members coming with several titles to suggest, with a vote at the end of the night.

5. Assign a Hostess and Discussion Leader Each Month.
While they can be the same person, sometimes it's easier to break up the responsibilities and not burden one person too much.

6. Choose What Someone Has Read
First and foremost, be sure that any book suggested for the group is one that the person recommending it has already read. Many times readers will hear great things about a book, only to read it later and discover it wasn't what they expected. Book groups read only a few titles every year; they don't have the luxury of reading bad books.

This is particularly important if the title is from a national press and the contents may or may not be questionable. It's easy to get halfway into a book and realize it's not appropriate for the book club. Other times, the book just isn't as good as you expected.

6. The Discussion Leader's Job
This job shouldn't be scary. The discussion leader simply brings information about the author and the book to share with the group. She also provides questions to pose if the discussion needs a kick start or mid-meeting boost.

The discussion leader can also help keep everyone on track so you actually discuss the book—it's easy sometimes to get into chitchat and forget why you're there.

7. Serve Food.
While refreshments are certainly not necessary, simple treats are a fun way to end the evening, especially if they're tied to the book or author in some way.

8. Ask the Author.
Many authors are very willing to answer book club questions in advance, call a book club and participate over the phone or via web cam, or even attend a book club in person. Check their website to see if it's a possibility for the book you chose. You might even find discussion questions on their website.

9. Go for Variety.
Instead of reading just one type of book, such as doctrinal works, non-fiction, romances, or whatever your group tends to gravitate toward, try something new. Throw in a classic, a young adult novel, a fantasy, a mystery, or a self-help book. Some groups refuse to read LDS fiction or refuse to read anything but LDS fiction. Both ways of going about book clubs tend to run the group into a rut. Find fresh territory by breathing some life into your group with a new kind of book.

On the other hand, finding variety can be a challenge when a book group is sponsored by a ward Relief Society, because in that case the books need to stay closer to gospel standards than in a book group that doesn't have church-approved stamp on it and can't risk offending anyone. (A tall order, since each reader's level of tolerance is totally different.)

If your group is interested in LDS fiction, a good place to look for quality LDS novels is the finalists and winners pages for the Whitney Awards, which recognize the best fiction written by LDS writers each year. Find the finalists from 2007 here and the 2008 finalists here. The 2009 finalists will be announced early February 2010, and the winners will be awarded in April.

Below is a list of newer novels by LDS writers that provide great fodder for book group discussions:
  • Bound on Earth, by Angela Hallstrom. A group of connected short stories about an LDS family, complete with individual imperfections as they strive to live the gospel. (2008 Whitney winner for Best Novel by a New Author.)
  • Her Good Name, by Josi S. Kilpack, 2007 Whitney Award winner. A gripping story about identity theft. Particularly timely in today's world.
  • Abinadi and Alma, by 2-time Whitney Award winner, H. B. Moore. The author takes the Book of Mormon stories we all know and brings them to life in a fresh way. In the former, she asks: What if Abinadi wasn't the old man we're used to seeing in Frieberg's painting? What if he was a young husband with child? In the latter, we see Alma growing into his role as a prophet and leader of his people.
  • In a Dry Land, by Elizabeth Petty Bentley. Another book with themes and challenges that are real and yet true to the gospel. There are no easy answers here. Fascinating story.
  • Master, by Toni Sorensen. A beautiful fictional look at the Savior's life, told through the eyes of a fictional childhood friend of Christ. (2008 Whitney finalist for Best Historical.)
  • My Not-So-Fairy-Tale Life, by Julie Wright. A great launching point for discussing sin, repentance, and the power of Atonement along with the issues surrounding adoption.
  • Waiting for the Light to Change, by Annette Haws. Great for discussing the complexities of family relationships, the angst of high school, and how every person's actions can affect the future in ways you cannot predict. (2008 Whitney Award winner for Best General Novel.)
  • Traitor, by Sandra Gray. A different look at World War II with fascinating characters and an intriguing premise: What if a German fell in love with an American spy. More importantly, can you be both Nazi and a faithful Mormon? This novel took the Whitney for Best Novel in 2008.
  • The Reckoning, by Tanya Parker Mills. This self-published book was a 2008 Whitney Award finalist in several categories, and it definitely deserved the honor. The novel is a fascinating look inside the life of an American woman who lived in Iraq as a child . . . and taken prisoner as an adult. This one is full of book club discussion fodder.
  • All the Stars in Heaven, by 2007 Whitney winner in the Romance category, Michele Paige Holmes. This is a refreshing LDS novel in that while it has some LDS characters, they are minor ones, and the main characters are not LDS and don't convert. It's a suspenseful romance that centers on real issues that have real-life application and that should be discussed, primarily the dangers of drug use.
  • Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jaime Ford. This New York Times best-selling novel is written by an LDS American man of Chinese descent. The story is seamlessly told between World War II and the 1980s, two time lines that impact Harry, a Chinese American whose best friend, a Japanese American girl, Keiko, was taken away with her family and relocated in an interment camp. A fascinating, poignant, and heartbreaking read. Lots of great themes and topics to discuss here.
  • When Hearts Conjoin, by Erin Herrin and Lu Ann Brobst Staheli. This memoir is about the famous conjoined Herrin twins and their amazing separation surgery. But it's about more than that; the book also goes into the mother's story: how she met and married their father, their marital troubles, their decision to keep the babies after they learned that they were conjoined, and so much more. This is a relatively short book, and once you open it, chances are, you won't put it down until you're done.

Handled well, book groups can be great literary experiences where long-time friends are made.

Good luck!

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