The Books Afoot book group, facilitated by Mollie Hoben at the Minnesota Women's Press, combines its members' two favorite things: walking and talking about books. They meet once a month, May-October, to do an urban walk and then adjourn to a member's home, a coffee shop or the Minnesota Women's Press office for discussion.
Do you read a particular genre or type of book?
We read mostly fiction and memoir. We try to fit the book to the place where we're walking. When we read "Days of Rondo" by Evelyn Fairbanks we walked around St. Paul's Rondo neighborhood; when we read "Riverwalking" by Kathleen Dean Moore, we walked along the Mississippi. But we don't limit our books to ones that fit with Twin Cities landscapes. Sometimes we have to be pretty creative in making the tie between the book and where we walk. Sometimes there's not an obvious connection. After 10 years of reading and walking together we've given ourselves permission not to have the reading and walking coordinated every time.
What books by women are you currently reading?
We're reading "Plague of Doves" by Louise Erdrich, and we'll walk in the Kenwood neighborhood and visit Erdrich's bookstore, Birchbark Books. Next up for us is "The Latehomecomer" by St. Paul writer Kao Kalia Yang. We we plan to walk in the McDonough neighborhood where her family lived. Our theme this year is immigration; other books we've read include "Brother, I'm Dying" by Edwidge Danticat and "Shanghai Girls" by Lisa See.
What book by a woman recently sparked a great discussion?
"The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox" by Maggie O'Farrell is about a woman who was institutionalized, family secrets and lives lost. The story is steeped in complex family relationships and has roots in something that actually has happened to women in our culture's history. We talked about ways in which girls and women who don't fit societal expectations are controlled, constrained and punished. We went for a walk in Bloomington, completely unrelated to the book.
What book by a woman would your group most recommend to other readers?
We loved the structure and character development of "Olive Kitteridge," a collection of linked short stories by Elizabeth Strout. The idea of the same character appearing in most of the stories made it read like a novel. Olive is complicated and does not lend herself to quick analysis. Some of us loved her and some strongly disliked her. This helped make for interesting discussion. We walked in the State Fairgrounds. Again, unrelated to the book, but led to a talk about small-town lives and culture.
What makes your group work? Do you have any rituals?
The walking tours give us exposure to new sites and history. We always ask a key question, either inspired by something on our walk or by the book. We go around the circle and everyone gets a chance to respond uninterrupted.
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