How To Book Club

Book Ckub

I was recently invited and agreed to join a book club. My initial reaction was unfavorable. For one thing, inviting someone who talks about books for a living and who writes his own as an avocation to join your book club is a little like asking a member of the Cavaliers to play on your rec league basketball team or asking your priest to join your bible study group. Also, I knew that the proclaimed purpose of many clubs fails to accurately reflect the activities in which they engage when gathered. For example, some card clubs rarely play cards and many of the customers in gentlemen’s clubs are hardly gentlemen. Similarly, in many book clubs, the actual discussion of the book under study is not even secondary but tertiary in importance to the food and the general conversation. In the end, I joined and I’m glad I did. Thus far, t has worked out splendidly.

As an author who has spoken at a number of book club gatherings and, now, as a member of one of my own, I thought I’d offer a few suggestions for those wishing to establish a “books first” book club.

1. Membership – The membership should be limited to 5 – 10 individuals. The small number allows for each reader to contribute to the conversation in a meaningful and thorough manner. Secondly, the members do not need to be close friends. In fact, I think it works better when the majority of members are more acquaintances than friends. The lack of familiarity helps to maintain focus on the book under study rather than the news from one another’s lives.  Thirdly, the membership should represent a diverse cross section of society that brings a wide array of belief and value systems to the discussion table. Therefore, members of different age, ethnic, racial, religious, and political groups should be represented, and most importantly, there should be a gender balance. My own book club miserably fails to live up to this suggestion. Perhaps, over time we will be able to address it.

2. Meeting Frequency – The club should convene every other month. For many, largely because of other time demands, reading a book a month can be onerous, especially if the book under study is lengthy. The two-month period should allow everyone ample time to finish the book, and it also keeps the experience of book club fresh and something to be looked forward to rather than a responsibility to be endured.

3. Refreshments – Keep food and drink to a bare minimum; otherwise, it will become a source of stress and competition, and it may shift the focus of the gathering to the food rather than the book. In addition, the eating becomes a time hog that greatly reduces the time that remains to discuss the book. Most importantly, it takes the stress of pleasing and impressing everyone’s palette off of the host’s shoulders. It’s tough enough to choose a book that will satisfy the diverse reading tastes of the membership and much more difficult to plan a menu to satisfy their culinary tastes.

4. Time Parameters – Begin a couple hours after mealtime. This allows members to eat at home and to make heavy refreshments unnecessary (see above). Set a three-hour time limit. Even if the conversation isn’t completed, that’s okay. It’s not necessary to solve every question the book may raise; there’s nothing wrong with leaving more to chew on. It might even inspire a re-reading and even deeper appreciation/understanding of the book.

5. Facilitator – There should be a facilitator to initiate and further discussion. If the group is leaderless, the discourse will meander, and side discussions will be initiated and fracture the group. The facilitator could be the same person each meeting, or the position could rotate in whatever manner the group sees fit.

6. Book Choice – The most important factor in constructing a  successful book club experience is the selection of reading material. Firstly, the concern should not be to please every member. Part of being in a book club is the experience of reading material you would never have chosen for yourself. If you are not excited by this proposition, you probably don’t belong in a serious book club. Secondly, limit the selections to literary novels. Nonfiction books and popular novels are written almost entirely literally. What you read is exactly what you get. Once it’s established what actually happens in the book, there is nothing left to discuss. With nonfiction and page turners, there is little to no room for personal interpretations to be introduced and bandied about – and that is the fun part and the primary reason why book clubs exist.

In the end, I believe anything that motivates folks to read is a good thing, and any manifestation of a book club is a fundamentally good enterprise rather books, food, or simple fellowship dominates the time. My suggestions as outlined above are primarily for those serious readers who want the book experience to remain at the center of conversation and for the discussion to be as stimulating and, sometimes, even life-changing as possible.


So Kelley


hall of fame

This afternoon, I had the honor of introducing Mr. Gary Kelley for induction into Sandusky Central Catholic’s Hall of Fame. Below is an abridged version of my speech.

I want to thank Mr. Kelley for conferring upon me the honor of speaking at his induction. As his, not former, but forever student, I’m humbled by his faith in me. Although I long ago graduated to calling Mr. Kelley Gary, to the several thousand students whose hearts and minds he touched, he will always be Mr. Kelley. Therefore, as I stand here as their proxy and attempt to give voice to the gratitude and love we wish to share with him today, I will use that title, which was and still is spoken with reverence and affection.

I knew OF Mr. Kelley long before I actually knew Mr. Kelley. When he was only in his twenties and I was still in elementary school, Gary and Linda used to play cards with my Grandma Benkey and my Great Aunts Else and Tec, who were at least in their seventies at the time. I thought it odd, but you had to know my Grandma and her sisters, and as I eventually came to know the Kelleys, it made perfect sense. They were all east enders, they were all Saints Peter and Paul parishioners, and they all loved people, especially young people, or at least people who were young at heart. I also knew of Mr. Kelley because when I was still in elementary school, I would often hear my high school-aged siblings, cousins, and their friends talk of him as that most confusing of breeds: the cool teacher. Remember, this was the early to mid-1970s, when many of the teachers at St. Mary were still nuns and priests. It was also at a time when the generation gap between teens and adults was wide. Roger Daltry of the Who had not too much earlier defiantly sung, “I hope I die before I get old,” and Jack Weinberg, an activist in San Francisco, said those in the movement “didn’t trust anyone over 30.”

When I entered high school myself, I was surprised to learn that this Mr. Kelley was a longish-haired, mustachioed, bell bottom-wearing, borderline hippie who was also the make-up man for school plays. On the surface, he appeared to be nothing like the male role models I’d known up to that point, all of whom were short on words, long on toughness, and often downright scary. Over time, however, I learned that this make-up man was as tough as and, when necessary, could be just as no nonsense-allowing and even intimidating as the most macho of those others. But those occasions were rare. In fact, Mr. Kelley would become the first person I knew to actually model the word “gentle” in gentleman and to teach me that I could love sports and the arts and humanities.

When I finally stepped inside his classroom for senior English, I sensed immediately that his room was different than any I’d ever been in: somehow warmer, somehow safer. It was clear that it didn’t matter who your parents were or if you were a star football player or a cheerleader or the class valedictorian or the class stoner or clown, you were going to be treated like everyone else. For those forty-two minutes, in Mr. Kelley’s room, every one of us were one of the cool kids. Mr. Kelley commanded my respect and attention not by instilling fear but by engaging me intellectually. He fascinated, not frightened me. He taught with a passion that was genuine and incendiary and made me take seriously every word he read or spoke. He made me feel that my thoughts and opinions actually mattered. Whether it was in regards to my behavior or my academic performance, he made me want to please him and never to disappoint him.

Other than my parents and my wife, Mr. Kelley has had more impact on my life than anyone else – not only as I pursued a career in education and a writing avocation, but also as I became a husband, a father, and, a mentor myself to others. When I have been at my best as an adult, I have been the most like Mr. Kelley. It’s when I’m channeling the examples he set for me and the wisdom he shared with me that I most like myself and I know I’m getting it right.

For those who are unaware, after his thirty years in Catholic education, Mr. Kelley began a second career as a sales rep. A job he continues to this day with no plan of retirement on the horizon. He has also immersed himself in his other artistic love: watercolor painting of local landmarks, including a recent one of the Jefferson Street entrance of the high school. I point this out because it is another lesson that, I believe, Mr. Kelley is modeling for us all but especially for me: to never stop seeking new challenges and to live until I die. Because, probably like all of his students, I always thought he was talking especially to me. Gary Kelley is no Gary Cooper, you will never watch him ride off into the sunset. This spirit is exemplified in the poem “Ulysses,” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, a poem that Mr. Kelley and I have long shared as one of our favorites. In the earlier stanzas, Ulysses complains that after living a life of adventure amongst gods and heroes, he has returned to his home in Ithaca and become “an idle king” with little to do but to wait for “that eternal silence.” But in the final line, he determines to set out once more with his men and “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

It is one of the greatest honors of my lifetime to present Mr. Gary Kelley, my Ulysses, for induction into the Sandusky Central Catholic Hall of Fame.


Brooklyn: A Review

The film version of Brooklyn, Colm Toibin’s novel, has received glowing reviews from film critics and audiences alike, mirroring the acclaim that was heaped on the novel itself. Before you rush out to see it or it becomes available for streaming, I’d suggest that the story is one of such intimacy that it requires the depth of immersion that only reading can plumb in order to be fully appreciated. The time spent with Toibin’s luscious prose and the story’s protagonist Eilis Lacey, with whom I promise you will fall in love, will be well worth your efforts.

Eilis is a provincial Irish-Catholic shop girl who, due to limited prospects in her homeland, emigrates to Brooklyn in the early fifties sponsored by a priest from the home country. While living in an all-female boarding house under the intrusive eyes of her landlady and amongst her sometimes petty, always judgmental, fellow borders, Eilis suffers through a period of near-crippling homesickness. However, after she secures a job at a department store with the aid of Father Flood, begins taking night classes at Brooklyn College, and falls in love with a gregarious Italian plumber named Tony and his welcoming family, Eilis begins to relish her life in her new home. Just as Eilis settles into her previously unimaginably happy present and begins looking forward to her happily-ever-after and the attainment of her American Dream, tragic news from home forces her to confront the existential dilemma of choosing between returning to Ireland and fulfilling her familial duties or remaining in her adopted home, where previously unimaginable hopes have crystallized and dreams are coming true.

Brooklyn’s old-fashioned subject matter (love, family, faith, and home) and settingreturn the reader to the idealized 1950’s, while Toibin’s stylistic choices – the use of omniscient, third-person narration; a traditional plot structure that slowly builds to climax; a complete lack of gratuitous or ridiculously romanticized sex, violence, or crude language; and what I love best about this novel, the almost complete lack of post modern irony – earns the reader’s investment in the story through the creation of believable and empathetic characters faced with recognizable, real world difficulties and dilemmas. Brooklyn represents the novel genre in its purest form and fulfills what was once accepted as its most basic function: to capture the drama in the lives of regular people doing ordinary things in their workaday worlds.

Having come of age in the post modern era, first as a reader and student then as a teacher and writer of fiction, my sensibilities to storytelling have been jaded by the avant-garde’s dismissal of all things traditional and, even more so, by the skepticism, irony, and snark typical of the period’s storytellers. The late David Foster Wallace, a contemporary and one of my favorite authors, often worried that the heavy-handed and pervasive irony of the fiction of the late 20th century had forever destroyed authorial sincerity and that when confronted by genuine and straightforward candor, the modern reader wouldn’t know how to process it. For many, Wallace’s concern remains relevant. However, in Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, I have found the antidote to my own sardonicism. In his portrayal of an outwardly-appearing simple young everywoman navigating the world, Toibin captures the complexities of leading an ordinary life – our ordinary lives.