Everyone seems to be in a book club, though not everyone is reading “Gone Girl.” Three very different local groups illustrate the range of readers, books discussed, and snacks served.
Retirement community denizens: Gambling, sex, and bananas Foster
The staff at Brookhaven in Lexington (slogan: “Life Care Living at its Finest”) prints the date, time, and selection of each meeting of its book club on a weekly and monthly calendar of events and on a flier that it posts to the activities board in the lobby of the main building, which sits at the center of a complex of residences named for Massachusetts worthies. (The smallest model, the Alcott, is 550 square feet (one bedroom), while the largest, is the Munroe at 1,700 square feet (two bedrooms and a den.)
In May, the book club gathered in Brookhaven’s formal dining room, a space replete with white tablecloths and a maître d’, where 11 women enjoyed a postprandial indulgence of bananas Foster and coffee and geared up to discuss Louise Erdrich’s “The Round House,” the tale of an Ojibwe boy’s hunt for justice on a North Dakota reservation. All were dressed very neatly. Some wore pantsuits. Two had once owned small bookstores. Men sometimes attend the meetings, but typically only for nonfiction titles.
“I was delighted to analyze this book, ‘The Round House,’ because I’ve been attracted to Native American people,” Norine Casey said once the meeting began, gesturing to her Navajo necklace, which she had worn in honor of the event.
“The Round House,” like all of the book club’s selections, had been chosen by vote. The group considers titles based on reviews, word-of-mouth, and fond recollections: When they reconvene this fall after a warm-weather hiatus, they’ll read “The Invention of Wings” by Sue Monk Kidd, Megan Marshall’s biography of Margaret Fuller, and “Charlotte’s Web.”
Erdrich’s novel was a natural choice, as most of the ladies were familiar with her work, and many had already read this book upon its publication last year. Some had reread it for the meeting, some didn’t bother, and two hadn’t read it at all.
“Please don’t comment if you haven’t read it,” Casey warned.
Casey was that evening’s facilitator, a role that required her to start the discussion and keep it moving along. Like a few of the other members, she had armed herself with notes.
“I have a new iPad, and I’m getting experimental with it,” she said, laughing. “I got information about Louise Erdrich, but I couldn’t figure out how to print it.”
Casey outlined Erdrich’s biography — one that involved several children, several more novels, and her husband’s suicide — as well as her own experiences traveling to the Navajo Nation. “The Navajo wouldn’t allow casinos on their premises, but it was very easy for them to go north just a few miles to Ute, which is a reservation with plenty of gambling and plenty of liquor,” she said, relating her observations to Erdrich’s 1994 novel, “Bingo Palace,” as well as Massachusetts’s current casino disputes.
“At first I went through and wrote down what happened on just about every page, but I knew that would make this evening a very boring evening,” Casey said, ceding discussion to the table.
The members delivered their remarks in turn, going counterclockwise. “The Round Room” had its problems: “too spread out,” “hard to get into,” and “too many characters.”
While it’s impossible to reach a solid consensus on any title, the Brookhaven club seems leagues more agreeable than most. One key to harmony: Keep selections under 350 pages. They all loved Sonia Sotomayor’s “My Beloved World,” but they’ve never universally hated any book — though some found Per Petterson’s “Out Stealing Horses” to be something of a pain.
As for “The Round House,” views were mixed.
“It had everything — sex, injustice, mystery. That’s what sells. But not that much real romance,” said Polly Gardner, dismissively. “We were just talking about books that would make a good movie, and this would be too hard to do.”
“Having raised three boys, you understand what teenagers are like about sex, but I thought they treated it sort of crassly,” said Lora Lee Buchta, one of the group’s organizers.
“I read it two and a half times, but it didn’t get any clearer,” said Cynthia Mead, one of the bookstore owners. “I think she’s far too political. I know she’s all for justice, but I’ve just read too many books about this subject.”
“It’s a big subject,” Casey retorted, marking the first outright disagreement of the night.
But by then it was almost nine, and before it could escalate, it was time to adjourn.
— Eugenia Williamson
Comic book club: Comic aficionados
The question is: Did the book strike a good balance between magic and reality?
For a brief moment, 13 members of Boston’s Comic Book Club, crowded around two tables at the Friendly Toast in Cambridge, sit quietly and contemplate the question. James Murray, group’s founder and leader, glances around for takers. Suddenly, there are many. Five people start talking simultaneously.
“Yes!” someone shouts.
“Definitely!” says another.
“No, no, no,” says someone at the other side of the table, grabbing his copy of the book and flipping through its pages.
“Yeah, I have to agree . . . I don’t think it got it quite right, actually.”
With a hint of resignation, a small voice nearby — apparently heard by nobody — says, “Well, it depends what you mean by ‘reality.’ ”
On this evening, the group is discussing the much-acclaimed series Locke and Key by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez, which tells the story of a sinister mansion whose doorways transform anyone who walks through them. As it turns out, the old house, located in a town called Lovecraft, Mass., is also home to a “hate-filled and relentless creature that will not rest until it forces open the most terrible door of them all,” according to the book jacket.
For the next five minutes, before they move on to the next question on the agenda, group members will debate the subtle differences between horror and dark fantasy, trauma and memory, enchantment and real life. The house, they agree, is a world-within-a-world, a place that exists within our familiar reality and yet imposes its own kind of logic on those who enter.
“This isn’t like D+D magic,” says Gillian Daniels, “there’s a real psychology behind what’s going on.” Jerry Dreiss, the book club’s eldest member, agrees. He tells the group about studies on memory retention and doorways. Some research, he explains, suggests an increased tendency for people to forget information after they have passed through a doorway. Opening a door and walking through it really can cause a transformation in us.
Jerry’s remark sets off a whole series of conversations and side-conversations.
Because the restaurant is starting to get busier, and the bar crowd rowdier, the noise level of the Comic Book Club rises, as well. Out of the din someone can be heard shouting across the table, “They don’t know they’re being stalked!’’ — a comment that draws concerned looks from nearby tables.
The comic book club wasn’t always this lively. At the group’s very first meeting at Murray’s apartment back in 2012, only one person showed up: Murray.
“It was a rookie mistake to do it at my place; and I didn’t know how to advertise,” Murray recalls. “And it probably didn’t help that we were reading ‘Black Hole,’ ” a series about a mysterious STD that causes teenagers to develop hideous mutations like horns and tails. But soon enough, Murray worked out the kinks, and he’s had a loyal core of members ever since.
His goal from the outset was to replicate the experience he’d had in a post-apocalyptic book club back in his native England. He missed the interesting people he’d met there and the group’s passionate and playful literary salons.
“It wasn’t just a bunch of guys with beards sitting around talking about the end of the world,” says Murray. “We always had a good laugh.”
Back at the Friendly Toast, the members of Boston’s Comic Book Club are taking turns rating Locke & Key on a scale of 1-10. There’s a consensus that the series has created a plausible world but that the characters could use some work. When the last member has declared a score, Murray crunches the numbers. The group, he announces, has rated the series a 7.71.
After the others have left, a few members linger, talking about why they joined. Jonathan Singer did it because his wife, Cristina Rivera, a book club co-organizer and lifelong comics fan, got him excited about the stories. Dreiss signed up because he wanted to rekindle the passion for quality comics that he’d developed during the renaissance of the form back in the 80’s. A first-time club participant, Jesse Bromley, did it because of a divorce.
“I figured I’d give these guys a shot because when my wife and I split she got all the friends,” says Bromley. “But it’s fine. I mean, she likes The Invisibles, and I like Preacher. It was never gonna work out anyway.”
— Avi Steinberg
Children’s book club: Fourth grade girls
Wine was not served. Kitchen renovations were not complimented. The idiosyncrasies of husbands and children were not discussed. But it was a book club meeting all the same, and in fact, the nine members were children. Aside from the fact that they raised their hands when they had something to say and had actually read the book, the Arlington fourth graders had the book club M.O. down.
“You’re fancy,” Olivia said to Lillian, who’d arrived straight from a piano recital, resplendent in a dress and cardigan.
“Did you get your hair cut?” Sasha asked the host mom. (Yes.) And: “Are we having grapes?”
Despite the prevailing belief that kids today are too over-scheduled or screen-obsessed to read, book clubs for kids are hot. There are mom-and-kid clubs, dad-and-kid clubs, clubs run by indie bookstores, libraries, schools. Sometimes the kids themselves push to form a club. Sometimes their parents do.
In Arlington, Kalyani’s mother, Anjali Mitter Duva, was the driving force, the club an attempt to interest her daughter in good literature. “You know those flyers that come home, the Scholastic ones?” Duva said with a shudder. “The kids always were gravitating toward the book that comes with the charm necklace.”
As the author of a forthcoming historical novel set in India, a Brown University graduate with a master’s degree from MIT, and a woman who spent hours reading in her hometown Paris, Mitter Duva found herself disappointed in the third-grade literary scene in her Boston suburb.
“There seems to be little emphasis on what’s well-written,” she said. “There are all those gimmicky series like ‘My Weird School.’ ’’
But here’s where the experience of a mother who grew up reading Balzac and Zola in French pretty much mirrors that of every parent in Greater Boston: She feared that suggesting books to her daughter would backfire. “So I’d buy books and slip them onto her shelf. Then maybe a few days later I’d find her sitting on the couch reading. Neither one of us said anything. It was a silent pact.”
That pact led to a warm reception when Mitter Duva suggested she and her daughter host a book club. For the first meeting, in February 2013, Mitter Duva choose the book – “The Secret Garden,” by Frances Hodgson Burnett — but now she gives the girls several choices, and the selection goes to a vote.
The girls don’t have to finish a book they don’t like, but they do have to read at least one third, and come prepared to explain their opinion. So far they’ve read — and liked — “Island’s End,” “Bridge to Terabithia,” “One Crazy Summer,” and “Out of My Mind,” among others.
On a recent Sunday, the book was “Esperanza Rising,” an award-winning novel set in 1930 that traces a Mexican girl’s fall from riches, when her father’s murder forces her and her mama to flee to California, where they live in a camp for Mexican farm workers.
“Does anyone know when this took place?” Mitter Duva asked the girls, as they nestled on couches, chairs, and a big bean bag.
Hands shot up.
“It was during the Great Depression,” Olivia said.
Sasha’s hand continued its enthusiastic waving.
“I see your hand Sasha,” Mitter Duva said.
Sasha: “It was a while ago. This was in California and the Mexicans had to be in tents and had to work on farms. In California they don’t really do that anymore.”
Mitter Duva: “That still happens.”
Sasha: “But it’s not as serious.”
Mitter Duva: “Well, it depends on whose perspective.”
Pretty soon, 45 minutes had elapsed, and the group began agitating for a snack and a vote on the next book.
“This is our last meeting until September,” Mitter Duva said, to dramatic expressions of sorrow. “So instead of selecting a long book, I’ve got four different series.”
“Ooooohhhh,” the girls cried.
“The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel” won in an eyes-closed vote, and then it was time to move to the deck for snacks. As always, they were on-theme. In this case, grapes, mango, papaya, hibiscus punch, and burritos.
As the girls devoured the fruit, and Mitter Duva served bean and cheese burritos, the members of the book club, who’d been discussing literature just moments earlier, transformed back into nine- and ten-year-olds. “I only want cheese, no beans,” one girl said, “I don’t want to fart.”
Mitter Duva, too, morphed, from the calmest educator possible, into a human mother. “I need a glass of wine,” she said.
— Beth Teitell