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Variations on a Theme

Grace Shackman

When book groups click, participants gain deeper insights into literature and sometimes, into themselves.

Ann Arbor is a place where people like to read -- a town of "read-a-holics," in the words of Cindy Osborne of Little Professor. "A lot of our customers are big readers," agrees Dallas Moore of Borders. "Some we see in here almost every day."

Reading is, of course, a solitary activity. But more and more, the city's readers are getting together to talk about the books they've read, sharing both ideas and one another's company. In homes and bookstores, in churches, clubs, and restaurants, Ann Arborites are meeting to discuss everything from Hamlet to The Bridges of Madison County.

The Observer's unscientific poll identified at least sixty local book discussion groups, a third of which have sprung up in the last five years.

Local historic preservationist Louisa Pieper jokingly calls her book group "Gossip Incorporated." It started as a bridge group. "We got tired of bridge and ran out of gossip, so books were a good al≠ternative," says Pieper.

At First Unitarian Church, the women's reading group became so intrigued by Clarissa Pinkola Estes's Women Who Run with the Wolves, that they organized a workshop based on it. Expecting about fifteen, they were amazed when fifty-six women enrolled in "A Gathering of Wild and Wise Women."

"We read about the gay experiences of other people," says Joel, a member of a reading group that's an offshoot of Our Little Group, a gay men's social club. Members of a group focusing on works with lesbian authors and themes jokingly called themselves "Dykes Who Read." Joan Innes is a member of a group that specializes in nineteenth-century British literature. "I love that century!" Innes says. "So much happened. The world changed forever." A descendant of George Eliot's husband once came to a club's meeting to display one of Eliot's paintings and subsequently joined the group himself.

While dramatically different in membership and purpose, the book groups that work are satisfying for the same reasons. When they click, participants gain deeper insights into literature and, depending on the subject matter, into themselves.

Literature meets real life

At nine o'clock on a Friday night, four African-American women arrive at Sylvia Holman's Orchard Hills home. They exchange news and enjoy a generous snack of chicken, grapes, strawberries, and cheese before drifting into the cozy family room.

This month's book, Pushed Back to Strength, is a memoir by Gloria Wade-Gayles, a professor of English and women's studies at Spelman College. It's clear that Wade-Gayles has hit a nerve. Discussing the early parts about the author's childhood in segregated Memphis, Tennessee, the women praise her gutsiness. Made to sit in the upstairs "colored" section of a movie theater, she rebelled by throwing popcorn over the balcony rail onto the white people below.

At the same time, the women are interested in Wade-Gayles's discussion of the advantages of segregation, including the tightly knit, supportive all-black neighborhoods. "You were 'Amened' into high esteem," recalls Regina Mason, a Ph.D. candidate in educational administration. "We were told, 'You are part of this community--you won't go out and embarrass us!'"

This group has been meeting for a dozen years; most of the ten original members worked at Mack School. Although two members have left town, and everyone has moved on to other schools and jobs, the group has endured. It is a very tight unit that rarely allows visitors because members' reactions to the readings are intensely personal.

"We read anything that deals with black women," says Mason. Past selections have included books by Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Terry McMillan, and Octavia Butler. They also read the first book known to be written by an American black, Clotel: or The President's Daughter, a narrative of slave life in the United States written in 1853 by William Wells Brown.

Hour after hour, the group analyzes Pushed Back to Strength. At 12:30 a.m., schools administrator Betty Schaffner decides to call it a night. The others stay to discuss the last few chapters. It's not unusually late for the group. When they discussed educator Derrick Bell's Faces at the Bottom of the Well, they talked until four in the morning.

Bodice rippers and beyond

The mood is lighter one Sunday evening when four women, all white, meet at Little Professor Book Company. At the back of the store, where a couch and several leather chairs are grouped invitingly around a working fireplace, the romance book discussion group comes to order.

Tonight's book: Bewitching Minx, by Janis Laden. In contrast to the African-American women's group, none of these participants knew each other before joining the group, which was organized by the store. Anita Morgan, a history teacher at Huron High, leads the discussion.

"I liked the characters," says Wynn Hausrath. "The mother-in-law was great!"

"There was too much bickering," says another member, twenty-year-old Shira. "In lots of romances, they argue too much."

"I liked the way that the heroine was a real person with her own viewpoint," says Nancy, who like Shira asks to be identified only by her first name. Moran replies that it's a trend in recent romances for the heroines to be older and more independent.

The requests for anonymity are a reminder that some people sneer at romances and the people who read them. The members' comments show that they, too, are well aware of the limits of romance novels--the formulaic style, the familiar characters, the predictable conclusions. But they enjoy the books just the same. One member says she alternates between reading romances and mysteries, depending on whether she's in the mood for "relational stuff versus putting clues together." And Shira notes that she went out and bought a copy of Tom Jones, the 1749 novel by Henry Fielding, after reading about it in a romance.

After their discussion, the four women peruse the Little Professor's romance section, deciding what to read next. When they return with several possibilities, I'm surprised. Instead of the usual "bodice ripper" covers I expected, these have decorous, tasteful designs--a decanter and two roses on a blue background on one. Lifting that cover, which doesn't go quite to the edge of the book, I discover a second cover beneath it. This one is a photo of the male model Fabio, shirtless, embracing a woman who is falling out of her dress. The extra cover isn't exactly a plain brown wrapper, but it evidently makes the book less embarrassing to carry in public.

Besides the romance readers' group, Little Professor sponsors a black literature group, a mystery group, and a contemporary literature group. Other bookstores have gotten into the act. At the request of their customers, the owners of Aunt Agatha's mystery and crime bookstore lead a mystery discussion group that meets in the store.

Borders for years has been helping existing book groups select and order books, but until recently had resisted pleas to actually set them up. Last year it relented to the extent of helping groups get organized, but it still doesn't provide leaders. "We tell them they can do it on their own," Dallas Moore explains. "They don't need an authority to tell them the themes, the hidden meanings." Currently, Borders sponsors an international fiction group, a Victorian literature group, and a vampire fiction group. After an organizational meeting at Borders, the groups are meeting outside of the store, at the public library or at coffeehouses around town.

Through the public schools' Rec and Ed department, the city itself sponsors classic and contemporary book discussion groups. And organizations like the U-M Faculty Women's Club, the American Association of University Women (AAUW), and the Women's City Club have been sponsoring groups for decades.

Book groups often start at local churches and religious organizations. Every Thursday at the local Jewish Community Center, senior citizens tear into such heavy-duty classics as The Scarlet Letter, Gulliver's Travels, and Pere Goriot, under the tutelage of retired English professor Sidney Warschausky. Members take the group seriously. JCC senior coordinator Yehudit Newman says it's not uncommon for members to skip the center's lunchtime speaker on Thursdays to hole up in her office and finish their assigned reading. The group once started to read the Bible as literature but got into so many arguments that they gave it up.

Last year Borders relented to the extent of helping groups get organized, but it still doesn't provide leaders. "We tell them they can do it on their own," Dallas Moore explains. "They don't need an authority to tell them the themes, the hidden meanings."

Booked for fun

Not every group is so intense. By far the most common book groups in Ann Arbor are loosely organized collections of friends. They read a wide variety of books, usually contemporary fiction, and generally meet in one another's homes about once a month.

Reading lists vary widely, but a few titles are mentioned again and again: Like Water for Chocolate, the works of Barbara Kingsolver, and Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres. Popular nonfiction titles include Jill Ker Conway's The Road from Coorain and Thomas Friedman's From Beirut to Jerusalem. Books made into movies are also popular, such as Orlando, Howards End, The Remains of the Day, and The Age of Innocence.

At many meetings, though, discussing the month's book is second to the socializing. "We spend ten minutes talking about the book--fifteen if everyone's read it--and three hours talking about everything else," jokes Betty Kirksey, who is in a group with five other women. While friendship leads some groups into personal topics, it also makes for richer literary discussions, because friends are more comfortable sharing personal experiences and insights related to the reading. After a women's group read Penelope Lively's Moon Tiger, in which the main character's wartime romance influences the rest of her life, each recalled a man in her own past who had dramatically affected her life.

"We know each other's stories," says Margaret Dawson, part of a group whose founding members were all nurses. Members of one group of women that has been meeting for thirteen years have helped one another survive two divorces, three pregnancies, five house purchases (a big step because the buyers were single women), and one diagnosis of breast cancer. The night before that woman's surgery, the group met in her hospital room.

No wonder many longtime members find their groups essential to their lives. Says Janet Chown, "After I read the book, I can hardly wait to get to the meeting and talk about it. I tell my husband we can never move away from Ann Arbor because I can't leave the book club."

The male minority
Most local book groups are exclusively female. Sometimes, that status reflects a conscious decision. "We're mean about [excluding men]," says Joan Weisman, whose group meets on Sunday mornings. "We all have nice husbands who are not macho, but they don't read what we do."

More often, though, women predominate in book groups because men just haven't been as interested. At an organizational meeting for Borders' international fiction discussion group, 90 percent of the attendees were female.

But lately, some Ann Arbor men, seeing how much pleasure their wives and women friends derive from their groups, are starting to form their own. Investment analyst Doug Gross modeled his book discussion group after his wife's group. He found three like-minded men, two of whom he had met while working on his M.B.A. at the U-M: Tony Glinke, owner of Ann Arbor Plastics, and Todd Doenitz, a structural engineer. Mike Mayotti, a civil engineer, learned of the group through his wife, who works with Gross.

"We're not a bunch of sensitive, caring guys," Glinke insists. "But when we get to know each other, we talk freely."

One rainy evening, the group meets at Palio on Main Street. After ordering desserts (cannoli, gelato, sherbet) and coffee or beer, they settle down to a serious discussion of Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome.

As with the women's groups, the discussion at first sounds as if it could be taking place in an English class. But then the men begin to get more personal, relating the book's themes to their own lives.

The social pressures that forced Ethan Frome to stay with his wife, Zenobia, despite the fact that he loved another woman, remind several members of their own small-town childhoods. "The social constraints in a community like that are stronger," comments Gross, who grew up in Adrian. Todd Doenitz, who grew up in an even smaller town--Wayela, Illinois, population 550--explains that in a small town no one is sheltered from gossip. But they agree that Ethan's tormented choice is still topical. They discuss a contemporary example of such a situation, involving an au pair girl's effect on a marriage. Gross sums it up: "There but for the grace of God go I. What do you do if you have to work harder to have a relationship than you want?"

Food for thought

Even during the most serious discussions, food is seldom far away. The men meet at restaurants. For women's groups that meet in members' homes, the hostess usually serves refreshments. The AAUW afternoon group and the Women's City Club book group both have lunch in the City Club dining room. While many of the groups end the year with a potluck, Margaret Dawson's group has one at every meeting. "Nurses are food-oriented," she explains. "It's part of the nurturing complex."

But these being reading groups, even the food is likely to have a literary flair. Participants in the brown bag reading group at Washtenaw Intermediate School District bring their own lunches to eat while they talk, but someone always brings a dessert based on the month's book--Middle Eastern confections when they read Naguib Mahfouz's Palace Walk and sweet potato pie when they read Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First Hundred Years. For another group that meets in the evening, the hostess served food mentioned in Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence: goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, olive oil. In a classics reading group, a participant of Irish descent brought Irish soda bread when they discussed Yeats's poetry.

It's literally food for thought. "The book club provides an opportunity to explore ourselves and each other," sums up book club member Jane Peterson. "And to eat wonderful desserts."

[Photo caption from original print edition: After members of this African-American women's book group read Derrick Bell's Faces at the Bottom of the Well, the discussion was so intense that the meeting lasted until 4 a.m.]

[Photo caption from original print edition: Men are scarce in most book discussion groups. Doug Gross (far right) was inspired to start this group when he saw how much his wife enjoyed hers.]

Rights Held By
Grace Shackman