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Curl up with a good book, and a fun group

Book group reaches 100th book, 8th year

By all accounts, it was Amanda who started the group, way back in 2005.   At the time, she was working as a store manager at a used book shop in St. Cloud.

“I had a whole stack of books that had just come in, and wanted to find a way to move them,” said Amanda.  “So I hit on the idea of a book group.  My thought was that the books would come from the store, which would increase my sales.”  The first book, Things in Ditches, by Jimmy Olsen, did come from the store.

“But after that,” said Amanda, “we quickly abandoned the practice of reading books from the store.  The books we had in good supply just wouldn’t have appealed to all of us.”  Instead, book group members made suggestions about what book to read for the following month.  They agreed to a few ground rules:  Someone in the group had to have read it, and it had to be available in paperback, so as to keep costs down.  Later, it became common to make sure there were enough copies to go around within the Great River Regional Library’s system.

Book club members Amanda Hoff, Connie Duea and John Rouse are the founding members.

There were four people at the first meeting in September 2005.   The first attendees were John, Connie, Amanda, and another person – perhaps a student – who did not come back again.  Amanda had made a flyer and put it up by the cash register at the store.  “It caught my eye,” said John, who considers himself an “inveterate reader.”  At one time, John was a member of four different book groups in the St. Cloud area.  He has recently cut back to just one.  “I read the material for the book group, which is just one book,” he said, “but I am probably reading about 10 other books on my own!”  John, whose favorite author is Raymond Chandler, is a former professor of criminal justice from New York who moved to St. Cloud when he retired.  His biography of the prison warden famed for his attempts to end the death penalty, Firm but Fair, the life of Sing Sing Warden Lewis Lawes, was published by Xlibris in 2000.

The group has members from all walks of life:  working adults as well as retirees, young and old, professionals and non-professionals.  There are teachers, retired professors, doctors’ wives, and mothers of toddlers.  One member is in retail, another works for the county, a third for a printing company.  This varied group has been together for a little more than eight years.

“I was on vacation at the end of August that year.  I was doing a little shopping and saw the sign for the book group and decided to join,” said Connie.   She has enjoyed both the social interaction and finding interests in common with other members.  She has also enjoyed the conversations that are a part of the group meetings.  “This is an easy group to have discussions with,” Connie said.

Karen Mrja “saw the flyer, but was not able to attend the first meeting,” remembers Amanda.  She came to the next one, though, and instantly became an integral part of the group.  Karen, who passed away unexpectedly in October 2013, was a source of vitality for the group, with her seemingly boundless energy and strength.  “She was very highly organized,” said John, who remembers that she put together a database of every book ever read by the group.   “Karen was the one who made flyers for us and put out press releases,” recalls Amanda.   “She quickly became the organizer and record-keeper of the group.”

Other members include (left) Marcia Neely (new member) and Allison Shattuck.

At first, the group met at coffee houses, bistros and even wine bars around town.  The lack of a permanent location for their monthly meeting was the inspiration for the name “The Book Group Around the Corner.”  After many venue changes, the group finally settled into meeting at the St. Cloud Public Library, where a meeting room is reserved for the third Tuesday of each month at 7PM.   “It’s just about the perfect size room,” said Amanda, “since it will only hold about 12 people.  If the group is any bigger than that,” she said, “it can get too hard to really hold a discussion.”  The core group is about 8 or 9 people now, which, says Amanda is “just about the right size.”

The group has read books in many genres, including classics, mysteries, science fiction, adventure, young adult, and a few memoirs.  There have been some non-fiction titles, but most of the books have been fiction.  “Many members are fans of mystery or suspenseful writing,” said Connie, “so those are the most common genres.”

For their 100th book in December 2013, the group read The Motorcycle Diaries, Che Guevara’s account of his 1952 motorcycle trip through South America.  The trip is largely credited with radicalizing Guevara, who was shocked by the widespread social injustice and poverty he saw during the trip.  His vow to fight for equality and a unified Latin America was a result of the 9-month journey.  The discussion surrounding Latin America, Che’s writing style and his radical Marxism was rousing.  One member had her own stories to tell about traveling in South America as a young adult.  Some questioned the violent Marxist struggles and affiliation with Cuba; some defended Che’s reputation for visionary leadership.  All in all, the discussion was a healthy, open conversation with room for every opinion.

Few of the books the group reads inspire as much controversy as did Che Guevara’s memoir.  With their focus usually on novels or mysteries, opinions are most often expressed about plot twists or writing styles.   During the preceding months, the group had chosen Haunted Ground by Erin Hart, In the Woods by Tana French, and Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, all novels of mystery and suspense; none controversial, except perhaps in their character development or story line.

Other notable titles have included The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emma Orczy, as well as Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini, which Connie remembers as a great swashbuckling novel – absolutely filled with pirates and adventure, hair-raising escapes and dramatic rescues.  Connie also enjoyed Water for Elephants, a historical novel by Sara Gruen, and The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler.

The group has read some books that were generally disliked by most of the members.  Science fiction works such as The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle seemed to fall flat for most of the group’s members.

“Being a part of this group is great because I read books I may not pick up on my own,” said John.  “It gets you out of your comfort zone,” agreed Connie.

During the past eight years, members of the book group have become close, even though they don’t generally get together outside of group meetings.  Many members share events from their personal lives with the group – one member has had two children during the time she has been with the book group.  Other milestones have included job changes, anniversaries and reunions.

When Karen Mrja passed away in October 2013, the group was devastated.  The book group meeting held the week after her death was held in remembrance of Karen – her friendship, energy and vitality were treasured; her loss mourned.  “She always had something going on in the community,” mused Connie.  “She was so well-read, interesting and self-confident.  She really had it all together.”

There have been people over the years that have come for one or two meetings, but then haven’t come back.  But for those who have stayed with the group, it is an important part of their lives.

“It’s such a different group of people – it’s amazing to see the loyalty and commitment that we have to the group, as well as to each other” notes Amanda.  “It’s genuine.  I feel like I’d be letting a friend down if I didn’t come to a meeting.”

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