Plotting a New Book-Club Strategy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There was very little sympathy for Kathy in the room although, yes, the book club members agreed, she'd gotten a raw deal. Nonetheless, if Kathy had simply bothered to open her mail and read the notices saying the government was about to snatch her house for failure to pay taxes, the entire mess could have been averted. Bottom line: Responsible people open their mail.

So began the discussion about "House of Sand and Fog," last year's bestselling novel by Andre Dubus III. Leslye Lyons, a professional book club facilitator, led 14 San Diego-area women through a discussion of the book's complexities. It's not that the women, well-to-do and well-educated, could not discuss the book without Lyons; they just didn't want to.

More and more, book clubs are evolving from self-directed hobbies to a professionalized pastime. Part teacher, part drill sergeant and part performer, facilitators such as Lyons, whose fees range from $300 to $500 per 90-minute session, often choose the books the club will read, research authors' backgrounds and then lead club members, mostly women, in discussion or debate. It is also the facilitator's job sometimes to play devil's advocate in order to spark conversation.

Lyons, 43, is a book-aholic whose license plate says, "Go Read." She has a master's degree in social work with a specialty in group dynamics, but never dreamed she would use her skills this way. About five years ago, after deciding to stay home with her children, she combined her passion with work. She facilitates 10 book clubs, mostly in the San Diego area. They meet once a month on weekday mornings while her children are in school and they adhere to an academic calendar, observing summer vacation and all holidays. Members pay $20 per session.

"Book clubs have been around since post-World War II, but the level and commitment and the type of participation is changing as women have changed," Lyons said. "These women don't want to feel like they could have gone to Starbucks for two hours and done the same thing. They want to have something to take away that they didn't have two hours ago."

She has found over the years that, though mostly educated and bright, many of her groups' members do not realize how smart they are, at least not at first. "But I love seeing them find their confidence," Lyons said.

For their discussion of "House of Sand and Fog," the women gathered at a home in Del Mar. The house is modern, with high ceilings and soothing neutral colors of sand and sage; walls of glass in the living room create the illusion of sitting outdoors. Hostess Harriet Schuman set out a buffet of bagels, pastry, fruit and coffee, and before the meeting began, the discussion was personal--about new grandchildren, a daughter's wedding shower. When Lyons called for attention, however, the chitchat stopped and well-worn books come out.

"Having a leader means we're not allowed to devolve into a kaffeeklatsch," said Nadja Kander. "We come together to talk about the books--and Leslye can control us."

The small brass whistle dangling around Lyons' neck is the counterpoint to a face so genial and good-natured it is difficult to imagine her using it. She only blows the whistle when necessary, she said, though not with this group so far.

Lyons deftly led the group from cover to cover, beginning with information about the author and reviews of the book to be discussed. She segued into the discussion by asking deceptively simple questions such as, "What is the book about?" and "Which characters did you like?"

The discussion was focused and purposeful. The women had their own opinions about the book and its characters but looked to Lyons for nuances. "That's what I want out of a group," said Berdele Katz. "I don't really need my best friend to tell me what she thinks of a book."

Schuman agrees: "I know people who are in book groups where there's no leader--I think that's fine--but I wouldn't be in it. I don't think I'd care to listen to everyone's little personal opinions about a book."

Lyons reads 150 books a year, offering her groups choices from among that trove. She prefers contemporary fiction but recently has begun to present her groups with an increasing number of classics. Recently, several of her groups have read "A Death in Venice" by Thomas Mann.

The selection process is marginally democratic--she proposes five or six choices and the women vote for three at a time. She searches for books her groups will find challenging and is not overly concerned about whether they like what they read. Inevitably, there comes a point when group members dig in their heels and complain that they don't like many of the books they discuss and want her to select different ones. It's a defining moment for some clubs, said Lyons. "The point is to recognize that you can engage in critical thinking and get a lot out of a book without necessarily liking it."

She sometimes pairs books by themes--Barbara Kingsolver's 1998 "The Poisonwood Bible," with the Nigerian classic "Things Fall Apart" by Chinua Achebe. "Poisonwood Bible" tells the story of white missionaries who arrive in the Belgian Congo in 1959; Achebe's 1958 novel depicts how the arrival of missionaries disrupts Ibo tribal culture. Lyons asked groups reading Harper Lee's 1960 novel "To Kill a Mockingbird," about a white lawyer in Alabama who defends a black man on rape charges, to follow it with "Wolf Whistle," a 1993 novel by Lewis Nordan based on the true story of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black teenager who was lynched in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman.

It is this process, a quasi-academic approach to literature, that many members of facilitated book clubs crave.

"I don't mean to sound arrogant, but I don't read to find myself, I'm reading for information, to learn about something else," said Caron Broidy, a Los Angeles interior designer. Broidy started a book club last year with a facilitator who leads several clubs in the area. "It's the information from the facilitator that matters to me."

Broidy's facilitator is an actor and director who did not want his name used because he doesn't want to be known for anything other than his theatrical work. He brings a zing to the discussion, however, that otherwise would be lacking, she said. "He's like having the best dinner party partner you could have," she said. "He's thrilling, he's exciting, he has so many stories and anecdotes."

The guru of club facilitators is Rachel Jacobsohn, 55, who founded the Illinois-based Assn. of Professional Book Club Facilitators in 1994. The 900 members of her group, many of whom are librarians, include both professional and volunteer facilitators. She estimated that there are more than 500,000 book clubs nationwide, and said more and more of them are turning to facilitators. Some have professionals at every meeting; others may hire her as a consultant.

"I've seen a definite increase in the desire to hire someone professional--even if it's a nicely running member-led group, they'll bring me in once a year. I'll explain what questions to ask for a good discussion and what parliamentary order I use."

Jacobsohn, a former elementary school teacher, started the association after publishing the first edition of her book "The Reading Group Handbook." "I honed my discipline skills teaching in the inner city--42 kids at nailed-down desks." In addition to leading from 15 to 30 groups herself, she also speaks at workshops around the country.

As for the books Jacobsohn chooses, she aims for ones with moral challenges, as opposed to escapist fiction. "That definitely has a place in people's lives, but I try to present books that have complexity of language, a complexity of plot and asks more questions than it answers."

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