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BookTalk September 2011
BookShelf: The Book Bags of Bemidji share an extensive list of recommended books

The Book Bags book club of Bemidji was formed 15 years ago by Julie Arnold and Polly Keith Scotland. They each invited one member, who, in turn, recruited another member until the group reached 14. They meet monthly, nine times a year.

What books are you currently reading?
"Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Brontë and "Romancing Miss Brontë" by Juliet Gael.

What book by a woman recently sparked a great discussion? Why?
"Half Broke Horses" by Jeannette Walls. I'm not sure that it sparked great discussion, but it was very well liked. It scored an 8.62 on our Bag-o-Meter scale of 1 to 10. We had read "Glass Castle" a few years ago, and it was fun to discuss the biographical aspect of "Horses" in connection with the earlier memoir-also the biographical fiction genre. Some members couldn't accept certain details in the book because they seemed exaggerated, but we had to remind ourselves that Walls didn't call this book nonfiction.

"Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" by Lisa See was both horrifying and enlightening. It is set in 19th-century China when girls at the age of 6 would have the bones in their feet broken and their feet bound. It contains a very graphic description of this procedure. One member shared photos she had found online of the deformed, bound feet of some Chinese women. The book described the secret language, "nu shu," that these sequestered women developed to communicate with their friends. Most of the discussion about this book centered around the idea of the vast differences in culture that none of us had known much about until we read this book.

"Fortune's Rock" by Anita Shreve sparked the greatest conflict in discussion. We had strong disagreements about the characters in the book and the overall story, which made for a very lively discussion. We seldom, however, all agree on a book, which is what makes our discussions interesting; we all bring differing perspectives to the discussion. We give our ratings at the end of the discussion, and it is not uncommon for members to say they had planned on giving a book a different score, but changed their mind due to something brought up by another member. We've also learned not to take it personally when other members don't 'love' the book we've recommended.

What book by a woman would your group most recommend to other readers? Why?
"Still Alice" by Lisa Genova. Our group gave it an 8.6 on the Bag-o-Meter. It is a book about a brilliant 50-year-old academic who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's. Although it is a heartbreaking story, it is also uplifting and deals with many end-of-life issues.

"Half Broke Horses" has scored the highest and we have recommended it to many other women.

Jodi Picoult's "House Rules"-We've read a few others of hers and, although most of us didn't really like the way Picoult ended this book, we did appreciate her portrayal of a young man with Asperger's.

What makes your group work? What tips could you share with other groups?
Our group uses its creativity to follow the theme of most book titles. For instance, we went to a casino to discuss Louise Erdrich's "The Bingo Palace," or a barn to talk about Laura Hillenbrand's "Seabiscuit." My favorite meeting location was a January mystery cruise. Each "bag" was supposed to arrive in Miami with a swimsuit, sundress, passport and the books "Skinny Dip" by Carl Hiaasen and "Shadow Divers" by Robert Kurson. Those of us who couldn't make the Florida trip met at a local hotel in the hot tub, while snow blew outside, and discussed the same books.


Erica Bauermeister's book, "The School of Essential Ingredients," was about a cooking school, which inspired inviting Sue Doeden to teach a cooking class during our book discussion. Sue read the book as well, and joined in our discussion.

Last year we read "Queen of the Road" by Doreen Orion and invited the other book clubs in Bemidji to read the same book and meet with us for the book discussion. We held our discussion, with the author, via speaker phone as a group. It was a lot of fun to be able to ask the author questions about her book. We dressed for the occasion, wearing tiaras, and a couple of people even showed up in pajamas and tiaras, emulating the author's mode of dress.

We held our discussion of "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett at a local bed and breakfast, and, of course, were served Southern fried chicken, Coca- Cola, and chocolate cream pie.

We seriously have the most fun, creative book club I have known. When we read "House Rules" our hostess served us yellow food to tie in with the main character's obsession for eating food of a certain color on a certain day. She also played "I Shot the Sheriff" as performed by various artists, throughout the meeting, since that song came up several times in the book.

Virtually every time we meet, we have something special that ties in with the book we've read. Sometimes our themes create interesting scenarios, like the time we read "Good in Bed" by Jennifer Weiner and were supposed to meet at Polly's wearing our pajamas. I was proud of my big yellow ducky slippers and my frumpy fleece robe until I knocked on Polly's door, clutching a copy of the book in my hands and was greeted by her surprised husband. I'd gotten the date wrong and was a week early.

When we read "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" by Betty Smith, the hostess gave each of us a tree to take home to plant.

For the book "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, everyone was able to taste a real potato peel pie. It was made with some of the only ingredients available on the Nazi occupied English island of Guernsey during WWII: potatoes and beets. The "crust" was potato peels, slightly boiled in water (there wasn't much cooking fuel then), and the filling was mashed potatoes with a bit of beet juice, which gave it a startling pink color. It sounded awful, but some members actually came back for a second piece. But for those who were still hungry, and in keeping with the theme, we had a baked potato bar with lots of topping ingredients.

What questions have you discovered that incite the best discussion?
We generally use the book club discussion questions at the end of a book, if available, or go online and download discussion questions. We attempt to stay on topic, but the questions generally lead us into another area of discussion, then another, although we do try to stay on task.

Even though we often get off the subject, my favorite discussions are ones where someone relates something from the book to her own life and we learn things about one another that would never have come up without the book as a catalyst to our talk. "Still Alice" by Lisa Genova inspired a lot of discussion about the fears of early Alzheimer's and personal anecdotes about people we know who have struggled with the disease. "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett inspired lots of reflection about our own youth, growing up during the age of the civil rights movement, etc.

Sometimes the best discussions happen when we disagree on a book.

Does your book group have a name?
The group has been dubbed The Book Bags, and we fondly refer to one another as The Bags. Our rating scale for the books is the Bag-o-Meter.

Does your group have any rituals or traditions that you follow?
We rate books on a scale of 1-10, using our Bag-o-Meter. Each Bag (that is, member) gives the book a rating, which is averaged for the final score.
Members started bringing back bookmarks from their travels as gifts for the other Bags. We have markers from Maine, Florence, Italy, Egypt and more. In April, a Bag was the guest of CNN at the Royal Wedding and brought us all back Kate and William refrigerator magnets.

How do you decide what to read?
At our first meeting each fall, we decide on what we will read for the coming year. We all bring suggestions with a rule that the Bag suggesting the book must have read it and liked it enough to recommend to the group. We arrive at our choices through consensus.

See the Book Bags reading lists since 1996, with Bag-o-Meter ratings!

Tell us about your book group! 
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