How to Host a Successful Book Club: Lessons Learned From Five Years in the Trenches

Anyone can start a book club. The challenge lies in keeping it going.

This month, the book club my friend Kariana Reyes started turned five years old. I’m OG member and I think I’ve been at every meeting and finished every book except for a handful! I’ve made new friendships through the book club and read books I never in a million years would have picked for myself. Despite all the change I’ve personally been through in the last five years, the book club has been a constant.

So to celebrate this milestone, I thought I’d interview Kariana about what motivated her to start the book club, how she tries to keep it fun, and why she thinks this book club has endured for so long.

Note: We recorded our conversation in September, prior to our anniversary book club meeting.

Shannon Fox (SF): Our book club turns five years old on October 3rd. And  So a lot of people obviously do the book club thing and it’s fun and all that. But having a book club with longevity is something special. That’s why I want to talk to you about it because I think it’d be super interesting. So I guess the first question I want to ask you is, what motivated you to want to start this book club and how did you go about organizing it?

Kariana Reyes (KR): I studied writing at UCSD and once I graduated I wanted to make sure that I was continuing to read and so I started the book club. I tend to be a little more of an old fashioned girl. So I sent out invitations in the mail to anyone I thought would be interested and I had fun with that. I chose an envelope I thought it was cute so it would be a fun surprise in the mailbox. And I also sent emails for those who are more prone to checking their email.

SF: I always appreciate that you send me stuff in the mail. You’re like the only person who does it just because and it’s fun, you know, because it’s special that way.

KR: It just feels to me a more intentional way of inviting someone rather than so many invitations that are just open to anyone. You don’t even put much thought into who you’re sending it to when you send an email or an evite. So I really wanted the people to know that I was very intentional with selecting and inviting them.

SF: I know some people have stayed on from the original group, which I guess is just me and your mom actually haha. But you invited some other people and it didn’t stick for one reason or another. Was there a particular thought process about who you were selecting to invite to the initial bookclub? Was there anything behind that?

KR: Just people who I know that love to read. I think that’s getting rare these days to find people who have the time to sit and enjoy a good book. I invited people (and still invite people) who love to read, but also who would fit in with the culture of our book club. Our culture is very laid back. We’re very supportive. We choose each time which book we’re going to read as a group. So it is a democracy, definitely. I’m not the book tyrant.

And as you mentioned, my mother’s in the book club and she actually is where I got my love of reading from. And because of having her, we have a book club that’s multigenerational. There are ladies in their twenties and thirties all the way up through probably seventies or eighties. We don’t exactly ask how old everyone is haha.

It’s nice getting perspectives from different generations. I feel like we’ve learned a lot. A lot of our reading has been historical fiction, which has been kind of the genre that all of us fell in love with in book club. I don’t think most of us knew we loved reading it until we started reading all these historical fictions. But the greatest thing has been hearing perspectives from different generations. I feel like you and I, as some of the younger gals in the group, we’ve learned a lot from the other women and I do think that they learn a lot from us as well when we kind of have a more millennial, modern perspective on things.

SF: Yeah, I think that’s true. Obviously our book club has really stayed around a long time. A lot of people try to start book clubs and they kind of fall flat or people lose interest. Like the fact that we’ve been doing it for five years, consistently every other month, what do you think have been the contributing factors behind that?

KR: Honestly, I think one of the main contributing factors is that we meet every other month. We don’t meet every month. A few of us are working professionals and even those who are retired, they’re spending a lot of time with their grandchildren and a lot of them have other jobs too. Like they do work a little bit or spend time volunteering.

And even though most of the time we love the book that we’re reading, what I like about having it every other month is that I always plan during the other month to choose a book I don’t think the group would read. Like for example, Christian fiction. It’s not a Bible study or Christian group, so I’ll read those kind of books in the months in between. I think that there’s just like not as much pressure. If you’re meeting frequently, even when you know that, months fly by so quickly, it can be hard to squeeze in the reading. And I think when people don’t finish the reading, that’s when they get discouraged. They don’t want to attend book club if they’ve only read a quarter of the book. Even when they know they’re still welcome to.

Another thing I think that’s made it successful is that we just do our best to have fun too. So we eat together. We make sure we have time that we’re socializing and just kind of connecting as a group. I mean, what book club do you find now that doesn’t drink wine haha? But I also have done my best if there’s a theme in the book to try to incorporate that into our meals, into our desserts, which is super cool.

SF: And I think we all really love that and appreciate it, especially cause you’ve kind of taken that on. So it’s like a fun surprise each time. Even though you’re not the book tyrant, you’re still very much the hostess with the mostess and it’s always fun to see what you’re serving up or how you’ve incorporated the theme.

KR: So I have a couple of examples, I guess one of them being actually just last month when we read your book Shannon, which was so much fun. It was really exciting for the group to have an in-house author and you know I asked you before I had read the book, are there any meals in your novel?

And you had said, well at that time period, meals were very plain, so it’d be kind of a chicken breast and pie sort of meal. So that night I served a meal that was actually in the book and along with the meal I had a quote from your book listing the exact food items.

Our book club read a copy of my book for our August meeting

SF: And that was super cool. I mean it was fun to see my meal on the table. I think the other thing was we talked about how I said, oh I think they eat kind of plain food. And when I said plain and simple, I mostly meant foods that are really like pure because obviously they’re not packaged. They are pretty much like, you know, you’re eating chicken and it’s just got herbs on it. You’re eating potatoes and they’re just there and like the bread, you know, doesn’t have preservatives in it.

KR: We all forgot about the fact that I got that chicken from Costco.

SF: Yes. The rotisserie chicken. But we used our imagination haha. Everyone commented on how good it was. I think that was really fun. And I think that also speaks to when we do this, it’s a fun way to connect with the book and to experience them through food. Like, obviously we’ve done books that had French influences a couple times, which is fun cause we both went through French class and then you lived there for a year. But we read Jade Dragon Mountain and had Chinese food. And this isn’t food related, but when we read The Language of Flowers, you incorporated flowers into the evening.

KR: I like to do things that are creative so that’s why I’ve taken on this role and I really enjoy it. But in The Language of Flowers, the author, Vanessa Diffenbaugh, she goes over the flowers, the names, and the meanings behind the flowers. You know, if a flower stood for purity or if it stood for laughter or sympathy. In the back of book it had a list of flowers and their meanings. So I went to the florist and picked out a flower for each of the ladies that reminded me of them.

SF: Personally, I really liked that touch. Another book club, someone brought like a gift that related to the book. It was also very personalized like that. So I think also maybe that’s just like why when we go to book club, it’s not just about talking about the books, it’s very experiential. You’re spending time with other women. And then also having this experience of the food and whatever Kariana’s creativity has cooked up.

KR: A couple movie nights too. We’ve read a lot of books not knowing that they were or would soon become movies.

Another memorable one I think was A Gentleman in Moscow. That was the one we did for Christmas. We had tea at Marlene’s Tea and Cakes, talked about the book, and exchanged Christmas gifts. And when we read Roses, we went to the Aubrey Rose tea room. It was a more romantic novel which went well with that tea room’s decor. It was sweet how at the the tea room, they put up a sign that said Roses Book Club. And  we all got to wear our hats and it was fun.

Oh earlier, I also wanted to mention another reason I think people have stayed, which is just a joke, but our book club is made up entirely of Js. Like if you follow Myers Briggs, they are all J. So I think that that has a little something to do with it, not that I want to offend anyone, but Js are reliable. So if you want a book club to keep going, make sure you include some Js in there!

SF: Yes. You can have the Ps, but got to have a core of Js to keep it going.

KR: Js are more of the planners and yeah, we never need to reschedule haha. And like now that we’ve got our core group, almost everyone shows up every month regardless if they read the book or not. And it’s just very regular, like clockwork.

SF: So I think it’d be fun to talk about the books. Like your favorites, my favorites, some of the books you’ve read that you didn’t think you’d like or genres that you discovered. I think there are a few genres we haven’t done, but we’ve pretty much done them all. Even nonfiction.

KR: Yeah, we did a memoir. At least one, right?

SF: Yeah, Educated. Oh, we did two. We did I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

KR: I guess one of the challenges I thought we would face initially is that we do have such different taste in books. We have a couple of the ladies who typically are drawn to more romantic novels.

SF: And a couple who will want to steer away from them, like me. A couple that are really into science fiction or fantasy or crime/ thrillers.

KR: Exactly. I really like all of those and classics. I always throw out Anne of Green Gables every meeting haha – something old school. So it’s been really good that we are a democracy. We do listen to people’s suggestions and all kind of decide what we are going to read. But as I mentioned earlier, it’s been really fun. I mean it’s a safe place that people can say if they don’t like a novel, there’s no offense. So that’s one thing I’ve loved. Especially you and Joan, I like your honesty. If you hated it or didn’t like the characters. But it’s like, you’ve read it and you’ve learned something from it.

So I like to think that we all come from a place of having very honest opinions. And we have good support for why we don’t like things. We’ll say, I wish the author had not done this or I found this was inconsistent. Which I would think is good for you as a writer.

SF: Yeah you can hear it. Things that other people don’t like and what they do like. But I think we do look at the books from a critical perspective. So it’s maybe a step above what sometimes happens in book clubs where we’re talking about the book and defending our reasoning, which is fun because sometimes then the other people will be like, yeah, I kind of agree with that. You make them consider something they didn’t necessarily think about and you can kind of take them in a new direction.

KR: So we’ll go back to your question, but here’s a little secret. Because we’ve discussed that we’re all really busy, me included, even if I do a creative touch, it usually doesn’t take a lot of planning. As you have mentioned. It’s usually like, okay, there’s a meal in the book and I’ll just run with it and that’s going to be the meal for the night. And we’re not making it from scratch, we’re picking it up or getting the Trader Joe’s frozen versions which are always great.

SF: Yeah. And everyone loves it. A couple of times we didn’t have a clear theme for the book, so we’ve done potlucks. Like we’ve done kind of a summer thing or like a taco thing.

KR: One thing that I love about the group is that none of us are really picky. We kind of like all different things, but aside from food, one of the great things about the internet is that for almost every book out there, there are discussion questions already online. So I will Google, “Educated memoir discussion questions” and they’ll come up. Sometimes they’re even in the back of the book which is great. So that has not taken me a lot of work. And we ask standard questions like, did you like the book? What’d you think of the title?

SF: Yeah. Or like if someone particularly suggested we should read this book, then it’ll be that person who leads the discussion.

KR: We try and have everyone come to meetings with suggestions about books they’ve seen or read that we can do next. Like we always do a Christmas book or at least a winter theme book.

SF: Cause I kind of felt like we went through all the decent Christmas books, of which there are not many in my opinion. So I’m always kind of on the lookout for Christmas books that we could read because that’s one thing we always do.

KR: Yeah, exactly. And then even after Christmas, I know we’ve done a couple heavy books for winter and lighter in the summer. Beach reads when you know people tend to be traveling more. So, okay favorite. What’s been one of your favorites?

SF: I mean there are some that I really liked. Some I’ve also recommended that we read that I knew I would like. But my absolute favorite, which I didn’t know that I would necessarily like because as I’ve kind of documented on my blog, I have sort of a hang up about World War II books. Like if someone says, let’s read a World War II book, inside I go, Let’s read something else. Nothing against World War II, I just feel like there’s so many of those books out there that I get a little burned out. But I think actually all of our World War II books, except for one I’ve really liked. And even that one wasn’t so bad. But I loved All the Light We Cannot See which is one of my favorite books right now and I wouldn’t have read that except for my book club picking it. Even though it won the Pulitzer and other things, I probably wouldn’t have picked it because it was a World War II book.

Obviously A Gentleman is Moscow is another favorite. That one I knew going in that I probably would like it because there are few people in my life that had recommended it to me and I know generally when I get a book recommendation from them, I will like it. So that one I knew that I probably would. That is probably my favorite next to All the Light We Cannot See.

KR: I’m going to be honest, I actually was surprised how much I liked it. I thought it was going to be a much heavier read, a lot more focused on communism and just kind of thought it would bring you down a little bit. But it was a very sweet novel. It was very pleasant to read.

SF: Yeah it had a good tone to it. There’s another book I really liked a lot that I actually did suggest just cause I thought it sounded interesting and that was Jade Dragon Mountain. I have another book from the author and I know she’s written some more, so I’m really excited to keep going with that series. She was a new author I found from book club. Actually, all of the authors I just named were new to me at  book club. I liked The Book Thief and I was really surprised that I like that at first.

KR: That was our first book.

SF: Yeah. And Where’d You Go Bernadette? was a fun read and another fun surprise. Another one was A Man Called Ove. That was one that a couple people had recommended to me and I knew I was gonna like that.

KR: So that was good. Really funny. I was also going to say it was really fun when we read Jane Eyre together. We watched the movie and we had also read Wuthering Heights and I actually reconnected with a previous instructor who actually had written a book on the Brontes. So that was really fun just connecting with her and asking, Hey, would you mind coming to our book club and talking to us about the Brontes a little bit?

That was a very kind of enriching experience that helped us connect more to the books as well.

Also I thought it was interesting that you had seen that woman Marjorie Hart who wrote Summer at Tiffany. You had seen her speak at a conference and I thought that was a really cool book that you had found. Especially since it’s a memoir of life in the forties in New York right at the end of World War II. So decades before we were born, but very close to when some of the ladies in book club were born. So I think it was very sweet for them to read something that’s kind of from their peer.

SF: And it was fun cause I could tell what I had heard her talk about when I saw her at the conference. So just another sort of enriching experience.

Educated was a great one and I would say the discussion was very rich for that.

KR: And then, you know, another thing we did too is we look up stuff about the book. That one being a memoir the author had conducted a lot of interviews. So even when we met that time at Panera Bread, we just pulled up some of her interviews and watched it. And we looked up photos of her family. So that was kind of fun and just continuing to enrich our reading experience.

I will say that I personally, do have a few kinds of books that I won’t read. We do stay away from horrors because that’s something that not everyone likes. We don’t read crime really. We’ll read books that have crime in them or violence, but we don’t actually go out and look for a crime novel. We’ve also never read a western.

SF: Yeah. I don’t know if anyone’s still writing westerns, but we’ve never read one of those. And I don’t think we’ve actually read like a true fantasy. We’ve read a true true sci-fiction, but not fantasy like something with dragons and magic.

KR: We still have more genres to explore. Yeah. And we’ve never done la biography. I don’t know if anyone will be into a biography, but we’ve never done that. We haven’t done poetry necessarily. I don’t know if we will. That might be kind of hard.

I also want to mention that libraries are great. A few of the ladies, they just have so many books. As readers we tend to collect books. And so really they’re finding their books at the library. And sometimes we share books. Like, if someone gets a book from the library, we’ll share it with someone else in that group. So then they’re not trying to find a copy, which can be kind of hard or like, you know, we usually go with books that are easy to find, not like obscure.

SF: Right. So you can find one on Amazon that’s not too expensive if you’re just going to go ahead and buy it.

Any thoughts on the future of our book club? Anything you’d like to try? Just want to see how long we can keep it going?

KR: I think just seeing how long we can keep it going would be great. I think that the size we’re at right now is good. Personally I think that if you start to have too many people, you lose a little bit of the intimacy.

SF: Oh yeah. I think that’s good. Cause we have six. We had five for awhile.

KR: And now we have six and that’s a good number. We usually have either five or six every time. We also live not that far from each other. So it’s not like cumbersome for someone to meet. It’s like we’re all in the same general area.

I like that we have different taste and that someone usually will come with a suggestion of a book.

You and I are kind of the researchers. We’ve realized too that a lot of reviews and a lot of stars doesn’t always mean a good, well-written novel.

SF: So we often worry about what people are saying about it and I think we tend to bring books that someone else has recommended to us or several someones. And then we share it with the group and then we’ll talk about what people are saying about the book as well. So not necessarily like just going off star reviews. I think we’ve done that with Christmas books and like in my opinion, that’s where more of the books have fallen flat.

KR: Right. Where they’ve just come from like a general random search versus like, Oh someone I know read this.

SF: Okay so I guess that’s it?

KR: That’s it for now. Still figuring out the cake for next book club. I want to do something really special!

SF: And I’m sure you will! Can’t wait to see it!

 

On October 3rd, we celebrated our book club five years to the day we started. Our first meeting was on October 3rd, 2014. We met to discuss The Book Thief. And on October 3rd, 2019, we discussed The Rules of Civility and enjoyed this wonderful cake that Kariana and her mom made. As evidence of Kariana’s creativity, she made flags for each of the books we’ve read over the last five years (even mine!) and stuck them in the cake.

 

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

No one’s ever told Eleanor that life should be better than fine. 

Meet Eleanor Oliphant: She struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking. Nothing is missing in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding social interactions, where weekends are punctuated by frozen pizza, vodka, and phone chats with Mummy. 

But everything changes when Eleanor meets Raymond, the bumbling and deeply unhygienic IT guy from her office. When she and Raymond together save Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen on the sidewalk, the three become the kinds of friends who rescue one another from the lives of isolation they have each been living. And it is Raymond’s big heart that will ultimately help Eleanor find the way to repair her own profoundly damaged one.

I’d heard a lot about this book before my book club decided to read it, not the least of which is that they’re making a movie out of it. So with all the buzz, I went into this book with pretty high expectations.

It did take me a few chapters at the beginning to get used to Eleanor. I didn’t immediately fall in love with her as other readers did…but I did eventually. And the book had just enough well-placed sentences hinting at a a mystery in Eleanor’s past to keep me turning the pages until I got over my initial hesitation with the character.

This book, like others in a similar vein before it, thrives from its ability to put the main character in situations where they are bewildered by the actions of others…yet are painted so clearly we as the reader know exactly why the other characters reacted as they did. A Man Called Ove and The Rosie Project come to mind.

What I liked about this story in particular though is that it isn’t afraid to take us to dark places both in the main character’s history and in their psyche. No spoilers, but Eleanor’s history is painful and her low moment in the story is about as low as you can go. And then we get to watch her to try to claw her way back from that.

If you’re looking for a page-turning read to tote along on your next vacation, give this one a try. For fans of The Rosie Project, A Man Called Ove, Where’d You Go Bernadette, Something Missing, and The Curious Case of the Dog in the Nighttime.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

January 1946: London is emerging from the shadow of the Second World War, and writer Juliet Ashton is looking for her next book subject. Who could imagine that she would find it in a letter from a man she’s never met, a native of the island of Guernsey, who has come across her name written inside a book by Charles Lamb…

As Juliet and her new correspondent exchange letters, Juliet is drawn into the world of this man and his friends—and what a wonderfully eccentric world it is. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society—born as a spur-of-the-moment alibi when its members were discovered breaking curfew by the Germans occupying their island—boasts a charming, funny, deeply human cast of characters, from pig farmers to phrenologists, literature lovers all.

Juliet begins a remarkable correspondence with the society’s members, learning about their island, their taste in books, and the impact the recent German occupation has had on their lives. Captivated by their stories, she sets sail for Guernsey, and what she finds will change her forever.

Written with warmth and humor as a series of letters, this novel is a celebration of the written word in all its guises and of finding connection in the most surprising ways.

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I’ve almost bought this book so many times because I thought the premise sounded good, but I always stopped when I saw it was a WWII book. I almost bought it again when I saw the trailer for the Netflix movie. But I didn’t pull the trigger until my book club decided to read it this fall.

To me this is a funny book because I’m honestly surprised I liked it as much as I did. It has elements I normally don’t really like in books, but somehow in this instance it worked for me.

I didn’t care for the main character though I liked the actions she took and her behavior. But I loved all of the Guernsey inhabitants and some of the other characters she writes to like Sidney.

To me, this book is a good bookclub read because it contains a multitude of things that could appeal to a group. The style and subject matter are unique. It’s easy to read. And the large cast of characters means that there are a lot of subplots going on that you can follow.

This letter (epistolary) format made it easy to keep turning the pages and the book is not too long. And for the most part, it is pretty lighthearted. Certainly the most lighthearted WWII book I think I’ve ever read.

But it did have its moments of levity. This book did a good job educating the reader about an overlooked piece of history. I had no idea that any of the British Isles were ever occupied during WWII. And I didn’t know much about Guernsey in general, but even with the letter style, I feel like I could really picture the island and its people. Now I want to go visit (of course). I should plan a Europe trip to visit the various book settings I’ve read about. Maybe someday…

The experience of this book is honestly like sitting down for a cup of tea with a couple of good friends to exchange news and stories. The time passes quickly, you leave happy and warm, but you can’t quite remember the main thrust of the conversation or everything you talked about. But you leave thoroughly satisfied just the same.

The Book That Matters Most

The Book That Matters Most by Ann Hood

Ava’s twenty-five-year marriage has fallen apart, and her two grown children are pursuing their own lives outside of the country. Ava joins a book group, not only for her love of reading but also out of sheer desperation for companionship. The group’s goal throughout the year is for each member to present the book that matters most to them. Ava rediscovers a mysterious book from her childhood—one that helped her through the traumas of the untimely deaths of her sister and mother. Alternating with Ava’s story is that of her troubled daughter Maggie, who, living in Paris, descends into a destructive relationship with an older man. Ava’s mission to find that book and its enigmatic author takes her on a quest that unravels the secrets of her past and offers her and Maggie the chance to remake their lives.

Because my life was so chaotic this spring, I missed my book club for only the second time ever since it started 3.5 years ago. So I didn’t have a hand in choosing this book and when I saw the selection, I took one look at the cover and went, this looks like a book I’m not going to like very much.

In general, I don’t really like women’s fiction. Anything that starts with so-and-so’s marriage has fallen apart and I’m out of there. I don’t really like books that primarily focus on relationships. It’s fine if there’s a romance in a book I’m reading, but I almost never enjoy books where the romantic relationship is the central focus. Weird, right?

So this book had two strikes against it: the cover, which immediately made me think this was one of those chick lit books and the back cover description, which confirmed it for me.

But. Surprise! I actually liked this one. Don’t judge a book by its cover, right?

I liked the concept going in of the book club and the books that matter most and I was happy to see how it played out over the course of the book. It got me thinking (of course) about the book(s) that matters most to me.

And I’m not sure I have an answer for that. Not yet. I mentioned before that I’m closing in on 1,000 books logged on Goodreads. So, I’ll probably save my judgment about what book actually mattered (or matters) most to me until then.

I really liked the writing style of this one. Really liked it. So much so that I think I may check out some other books by Ann Hood. Has anyone read anything by her? What do you recommend? Anything you think I’d like?

Though I did enjoy it, I still would put this book into the category of a beach read or vacation book. It entertained me. It didn’t move me to tears or break my heart or anything like that. But I enjoyed the story and can confirm that I definitely misjudged this one.

And, if you are a person who actually likes women’s fiction and chick lit, I’m sure you will love this one!