Book clubs are part of the culture in Rochester

05:00 AM, Mar 10, 2013

The Book Thieves, a young professional club, meets at Writers & Books. (Provided photo)/


Written By Anne Schuhle

Give us your suggestions

What’s your book club reading? Are you interested in making recommendations, summarizing why your pick was a winner? If so, please email Catherine Roberts at CATHYR@DemocratandChronicle.com for details on how you can participate in this new print and online feature.

Joining — or starting — a book club

If you want to belong to a book club, you can start with Writers & Books, Barnes & Noble, local bookstores like Lift Bridge in Brockport or your local library — or you can start your own. Here’s some advice on running a book club:
“Jump into it. Don’t try to construct it to have the perfect room layout and the perfect food and the perfect discussion with everyone highlighting six passages to discuss. Just enjoy it.”
— Jeremy Cooney
“If you’ve got the space (as they do at Writers & Books), don’t turn anyone away. Keep things exciting, don’t do the same food and don’t set up the discussion the same way each time. Keep it light-hearted.”
— Chris Fanning
“Be selective, but not discriminatory, about who you invite. Don’t invite just people you agree with. Different points of view are good.”
— David Grome
“It’s really important to let the whole group choose the book so that everyone will read it.”
— Dr. Rachael Wojtovich
“Readingroupguides.com is a great resource people should know about; you don’t need to come up with your own questions. Even if you have an informal group, let someone be the facilitator, otherwise it’s hard to stay talking about the book.”
— Carol Moldt

Flavors of Rochester Book Club

The Flavors of Rochester Book Club has picked its next selection, based partly on feedback received after our last event. Our spring pick is Cooking Dirty: A Story of Life, Sex, Love and Death in the Kitchen by Irondequoit native Jason Sheehan. Sheehan will be coming to Rochester in May for an event. Stay tuned to FlavorsofRochester.com and the Flavors of Rochester Facebook page for details. In the meantime, the book is available on Amazon.com, the Pittsford Barnes & Noble and other retailers.

The Book Club Play

Can you pick out which personality you are in your book club?
Playwright Karen Zacarias has worked with the production staff and crew of Geva Theatre Center’s The Book Club Play to polish the production before a regional theater run.
The play is about a book club in a city much like Rochester that has agreed to be part of a documentary. Cameras are on during subsequent meetings, and, well, members share a bit more than expected. Tickets start at $25, including for on-stage seats, one of several experiments Geva tried with this production.
Last week, Geva extended the play’s run through March 23.
Call (585) 232-4382 or go to gevatheatre.org.

Twenty years ago, Dawn Borgeest joined a monthly book club for the same reason many people do. She loves to read and thought it’d be fun to hang out with co-workers, have dinner and talk about books.

The club met her expectations — and then some.

I have to say there are times you could walk into a meeting and you’d be hard-pressed to know it’s a book club,” says Borgeest, now chief corporate affairs officer for United Way of Greater Rochester.

At one of their earliest sessions, for instance, a member had just discovered henna as a temporary hair dye, so they all decided to try it — right then and there.

As the months passed, so did chapters in their lives, and the women’s friendships grew as they shared job, marital, medical and family milestones. Some of their selections have bred even deeper confidences, such as one book that touched on incest, leading a member to share her own experience.

It’s pretty amazing that a book can have that power, and that there can be that much trust,” says Borgeest, who joined the club not expecting that depth of emotional commitment. “I consider these women some of my best friends and an important part of my life.”

Book clubs are nothing new locally or nationally, but there has been a surge in recent years, enough that Geva’s current production, The Book Club Play, has hit home with many.

When Boorgeest saw the play, which is popular enough to have its run extended through March 23, she recognized aspects of her own club on stage … in the discussion of whether popular books, like the Twilight series, were “highbrow enough” … in the shared intimacies … in the protectiveness and concern about who’s allowed within the club’s sphere … in the characters’ ability to still surprise one another after a decade or more together.

A club for everyone

Although there are similarities among book clubs — perhaps none greater than the enthusiasm for food and libation — no two are the same. Rochester is host to dozens of clubs that meet monthly or bi-monthly at homes, coffee shops, book stores and libraries. Some focus on a specific genre, others mix it up. Even though it’s a pastime that women seem more drawn to, there are men’s clubs and mixed-gender groups, mother-daughter groups, and some that focus on ethnicity, religion and specific interest areas.

One concentrates on Jane Austen books. Another concentrates on science fiction. One of two book clubs that Sarah Collins belongs to reads only post-colonial literature, primarily about Asia and Africa. Selections have included Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, which views India through the eyes of two English women living 50 years apart.

Collins is a retired Rochester Institute of Technology English literature professor and appreciates that both of her clubs are very informal. Although there is a “certain amount of chit-chat” when coffee, tea and cookies are served at the end, she said members are so excited to talk about the books that it’s hard to wait until everyone has arrived.

Collins enjoys the post-colonial group because she’d traveled to Asia and Africa without knowing much about the area.

I find I learn a lot more about a country’s geography and history from novels than I do from more academic works,” Collins says. But that doesn’t mean she favors quick reads.

I like big, fat, dense novels, sort of Dickensian novels, that give me a sense of whole times and place,” she said.

So the 400-page limit that the club in Geva’s Book Club Play eventually instituted wouldn’t suit Collins, although some Rochester groups have also drawn the line at Ulysses-esque tomes.

Some local clubs have as few as four members — there are six to eight in Collins’ — but as many as 12 to 16 regularly attend the lunch-hour club that Monroe Library System librarian Carol Moldt started five years ago at the central library downtown. They meet monthly, focusing on contemporary fiction but occasionally throwing in a classic or a contemporary nonfiction work.

Book groups are just incredibly popular right now,” Moldt says. “Almost every person I know is in one, and we get a lot of calls and people coming into the library, looking for a recommendation of a good book.”

It helps that the system has roughly 300 different book discussion kits available, complete with eight copies of the book and discussion guides. By the end of the month, the kits will also include large-print copies and audio versions.

We are really excited about it because we saw a real need,” says library assistant Elizabeth Barry.

Feeling of community

Barry speculated that some of the growth in book clubs has to do with baby boomers finally having time to read more. But book clubs know no age boundaries.

Andrea Deckert, a Rochester Business Journal reporter, is one of six women age 29 to 40 who get together every other month — and none of them is afraid to speak her mind, she says.

They pretty much stay on topic, too, which has been a relief to member Rachael Wojtovich, a pediatrician.

From what I had seen on TV, I was worried that it would be less actual talking about the books,” she says. “But everyone actually reads the books, which is my favorite thing about this book club.”

To facilitate the discussion, they use questions they find online, she says.

Wojtovich enjoyed the modern epic Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, but Wojtovich’s favorite has been the page-turner Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

The club’s emphasis on food and drink goes as far as trying to complement the book selection. For a plot that played out in Russia, one member brought liqueur and baked apples with a Russian sauce.

It was very intricate,” Wojtovich said. “I don’t think I’ve ever gotten that fancy.”

As time goes on, the women are getting better acquainted, which means more chatting — and more teasing. When they read Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles, it was Wojtovich’s time for some ribbing.

It has a doomsday sort of theme, and they all teased me because I have a really intense fear of the apocalypse,” she said, admitting the book did make for a little trouble sleeping.

Not just for women

At the Writers & Books store on University Avenue, Chris Fanning leads a young professionals club dubbed The Book Thieves. Membership is free and open, but after hitting a high of 20, the group has settled into 8 to 10 regulars. Everyone’s expected to bring food or drink to share, and if they can match the book’s theme, all the better — hence the choice of Mexican pizza while discussing Into the Beautiful North by Louis Alberto Urrea.

Fanning and other club members attended The Book Club Play together, and it wasn’t just the setting they found familiar. The club had gotten to meet the Geva cast, director and playwright last month when they attended a Book Thieves meeting to get a taste for the real thing by checking out several local groups.

Fanning says it was a lot of fun having them there, but he swears their club is “as different as possible” from the one on stage. After the play he balked when one of his club members told him, “You’re our Anna!”

The Book Thieves do discuss books, but when it comes to staying on topic, not so much, he says. “One thing leads to another, and somebody else has a story that relates to that … but eventually somebody realizes we’re off track and tries to dial it back.”

Jeremy Cooney, vice president of development for the YMCA of Greater Rochester, started The Men’s Book Group last year for the guys he socializes with.

When we’d be out with our wives, spouses or partners, we’d often end up talking about what’s on our nightstands, and I thought ‘It’s not too often guys get together and have an intellectual-esque conversation.’ Guys generally get together after work at a sports bar, and you can’t talk about books while everyone’s trying to watch a game. So I figured ‘Why not carve out time and make a point of having this conversation,’ ” he said.

The men’s varied fields made for good conversation when discussing their first book, Chris Matthews’ Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, he says.

Cooney’s mother was an English literature professor, who hosted various book club meetings, and the difference he’s detected so far between men and women’s discussions is that women may be more comfortable with the concept.

I think it’s a little more socially acceptable. Once, when I told a friend I was leaving a meeting to prepare for book group, he said ‘What???’ It was an abnormality,” Cooney says. “But, we’ve all been to college; we enjoy small group discussion and challenging opinions.”

His friend and fellow Hobart College alum David Grome couldn’t agree more.

I miss the reading from college and talking about the works and connecting the ideas to our personal lives. I missed that type of community,” says Grome, a business strategist with Eric Mower and Associates.

Grome also sees the club as an avenue through which young professional men can find the identity they seem to lack in this age of two-income households.

Breaking the mold

Members of modern book clubs feel free to mix it up and create a group that suits them. But the granddaddy of them all — The Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle — has been kickin’ it old school since 1878. Operated by the Chautauqua Institute near Jamestown, it’s the oldest continuous book club in the country.

Its goal is self-education, so cozy monthly meetings with food and drink aren’t part of its culture. Each summer, the circle selects nine books and invites the authors to present their works. Club members who want to graduate are required to read 12 books (selected from any of the circle’s lists) and pay the $10 membership fee for four years.

It’s not necessary to ever meet as a group,” says Genevan Ellen Reynolds, class of 2001. “If you’re on the grounds and there’s a discussion, you can go. And there’s a picnic the day you graduate and class meetings after you graduate.”

After completing the program, graduates often meet a couple of times during Chautauqua’s summer season and discuss books with a staff person leading the conversation. “It isn’t like sitting down in somebody’s living room,” Reynolds says. “It’s that you’re part of a much larger entity with a lot of tradition.”

As an avid reader and trained librarian, Reynolds enjoys both kinds of clubs. She’s part of the Sunday Afternoon Reading Club, where members have been known to take field trips to learn more about what they’ve read.

After reading Robert Bakker’s Raptor Red, they went to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto to see the Ultimate Dinosaurs exhibit. Sex Wars by Marge Piercy prompted a trip to Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s house in Seneca Falls, and Ithaca’s Farmers Market and Moosewood Restaurant became the destination after each member read a different work about sustainability and food.

So, clearly, there’s more than one way to run a book club. As Sarah Collins of Rochester said: “I don’t see how you can go wrong.”