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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

BPL Book Club Ballot and Becky's Thoughts on Picking Titles for Your Group

One of my most popular trainings is my Re-Charge Your Book Club program.  Over the years it has evolved and changed based on what I have learned, both by leading a book club for over 14 years AND by going out and doing the trainings, talking to other group leaders and group members, and learning from everyone I have encounter over the years.

All of this experience has led me to add two unique things to the book discussion world conversation, things that no one else out there is doing or saying.

The first, is my group and leader norms.  I have developed these, used them, and honed them with my group over the last five years and have passed on the idea to dozens of book groups. You can see a summary of these norms in this article I wrote for NoveList RA News on how to assess your group's dynamic.

The second, is what I am going to write about today-- how my group chooses the books we are going to read. Today I am going to go over in detail what we do and how we make it happen.

But before I begin, I want to stress that this is the process that works for us. It has evolved over the years and we are currently in a place where this process is a perfect fit for our current group. However, this does not mean that it will continue to be right for us going forward (tweaking is always an option you should keep open) AND this also does not mean our process is the correct fit for your group. I am sharing our procedure to help you to think about and assess how you pick the books your group will read because I firmly believe that the success of any group starts with HOW you pick what you are going to read (notice I did not say with WHAT you read; for more on how I feel about that contact me about doing a training for you and your group).

So now on to today's main topic-- how my group votes on its books.  Below you will find the text of the actual ballot our Wednesday group will receive tonight.  My Monday group will get the same ballot in a few days.

There are some key things to notice about how we construct the ballot.  First, although you cannot tell here, I always make sure that the choices are on 4 pages-- 2 double sided sheets, with a 5th page being the actual ballot on 1 single sided sheet.  This is so people can keep the list of books and their descriptions after they have turned in the ballot. Many of our participants love this because often a book they really wanted to read does not emerge as a winner. This way ensures they can use the list to remember the title and read it on their own. Some of them end up reading every book on the ballot.

Second, this list consists of books that I think would be good book club choices, books that have been on the list and received some votes in the past 2-3 rounds of voting (but not enough to be chosen), and titles patrons have suggested.  I have the books that have been on multiple ballots at the top, then the other 2 categories mixed together.

Third, although our group does not have a rule as to how many fiction vs nonfiction we read in a 6 month period, historically the vote has tended to fall to a 4:2 ratio of fiction to nonfiction.  I keep them separate on the ballot just so the voters are aware of into which category the book falls. Often they vote based on their preferred ratio.

Fourth, I have included page numbers.  This is because we have a rule that the book needs to be 400 pages or less.  Each year we discuss changing this rule, and each year it stays in place. I include the page numbers because the group has said they like considering the length, and often won't pick too many long books in the same cycle-- which is another reason to allow books a few cycles on the ballot.

Fifth, when you look at the ballot below, you will notice that the descriptions of the books are supplied by the publisher.  I purposely do not write my own annotations of these titles, nor do I use reviews or book jackets.  Why? I do not want to unduly influence their choice. I am using the most standard description of each book in order to let people make their own choice.  Some of my ladies just use the ballots, others go on Goodreads or NoveList to get more information, but the ballot itself is presented with as little opinion as possible.

Sixth, as you scroll down to the actual tear off voting page, you may be confused to see that I am asking for each person to choose 8 titles for only 6 slots.  Ahhh, this is the sneakiest and best thing I have added to the ballot.  Now is the time to mention my secret weapon.  This ballot is not a pure democratic process, rather it is what I call a "Dictatorial Democracy." When we had only 6 votes for 6 slots, we ended up with 2-3 definite winners and a big mess of maybes-- I'm talking at least 10 books that all had a few votes. It was as if no vote had happened at all.  I was being a dictator for at least half of the books by simply picking the final 3 that I most wanted to read.  People were unhappy with the choices, and rightfully so. There was too much dictatorship.  But with 8 choices for 6 books, we always have 4 if not 5 that clearly rise to the top of the heap.  Then, I only need to consider 3-4 titles which just missed the cut and had a good numbers of votes to fill out the last 1-2 slots.  In this case, I get to be a little bit of a dictator but I have democratic guidance-- thus a "Dictatorial Democracy" was born.

Seventh, I want to comment on our timeline for voting and planning. We are in month 4 of the 6 month cycle.  We hand the ballots out in month 4, ask for a response no later than the month 5 meeting. Tally the votes immediately after both groups have met in month 5 and have the list set and ready to go for month 6.  After month 6, we start over at month 1 again.  So, this means at the month 6 meeting to end the current cycle, I can hand out the next 6 month cycle list and the book for month 1. Then I get months 1-3 off from planning (except for collecting suggestions of future titles from the group which I do always) before the voting cycle starts all over again. It is a finely tuned rhythm that works well.

So that's the ballot breakdown.  As I mentioned above, this streamlined ballot took years of trial and error to get right, but the hard work has paid off.  Yes I know this has been a long post, and I have listed many steps, but seriously, it is worth it. For the last couple of years, the voting process has been painless from start to finish because we all know what to expect, everyone's voice is heard, people feel like the process has been fair, and they are happy with the selections overall (even if they grumble about a book here or there). In fact, when I get a lot of unhappy participants on a specific title, I remind them of how we voted and ask them if changing how we initially pick the books would make things better.  Every time, after thinking about it, they realize that way more often than not, the process gives us great selections. So because they are invested in and trust our well constructed dictatorial democracy, they are willing to let a few "stinkers" slide.

Being happy with HOW we pick the books has made the group itself happier and our discussions better.

Thanks for your attention on this longer post.  I hope it helps your group. The ballot is below in its entirety.

 Book Discussion Possible Choices
July – December 2015

Fill out the last page with your name, phone number and 8 book choices.  You will only be voting once.  Please return that page at the May book club meeting or before. 

(All summaries from Amazon or the book jacket)

Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan
1878 Paris. Following their father's sudden death, the van Goethem sisters find their lives upended. Without his wages and with the small amount their laundress mother earns disappearing into the absinthe bottle, eviction from their lodgings seems imminent. With few options for work, Marie is dispatched to the Paris Opera where she will be trained to enter the famous ballet. Her older sister, Antoinette, finds work as an extra in a stage adaptation of Emile Zola's naturalist masterpiece "L'Assommoir." Marie throws herself into dance and is soon modeling in the studio of Edgar Degas where she meets a wealthy male patron of the ballet, but might the assistance he offers come with strings attached? Meanwhile Antoinette, derailed by her love for the dangerous Emile Abadie, must choose between honest labor and the more profitable avenues open to a young woman of the Parisian demimonde.  397 pg.

Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen
Andrew Yancy-late of the Miami Police and soon-to-be-late of the Monroe County sheriff's office-has a human arm in his freezer. There's a logical explanation for that, but not for how and why it parted from its shadowy owner. Yancy thinks the boating-accident/shark-luncheon explanation is full of holes, and if he can prove murder, the sheriff might rescue him from his grisly Health Inspector gig. But first Yancy must negotiate an obstacle course of wildly unpredictable events with a crew of even more wildly unpredictable characters, including his just-ex lover, a hot-blooded fugitive from Kansas; the twitchy widow of the frozen arm; two avariciously optimistic real-estate speculators; the Bahamian voodoo witch known as the Dragon Queen, whose suitors are blinded unto death by her peculiar charms; Yancy's new true love, a kinky coroner; and the eponymous bad monkey.  300 pg.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
Alaska, 1920: a brutal place to homestead, and especially tough for recent arrivals Jack and Mabel. Childless, they are drifting apart--he breaking under the weight of the work of the farm; she crumbling from loneliness and despair. In a moment of levity during the first snowfall, they build a child out of snow. The next morning the snow child is gone--but they glimpse a young, blonde girl running through the trees. This little girl, known as Faina, seems to be a child of the woods. She hunts with a red fox at her side and somehow survives alone in the Alaskan wilderness. As Jack and Mabel struggle to understand this child seemingly from a fairy tale, they come to love her as their own. But in this beautiful, violent place things are rarely as they appear, and what they eventually learn about Faina will transform all of them.  416 pg.

Half Broken Things by Morag Joss
Jean is a house sitter at the end of a dreary career. Steph is nine months pregnant and on the run. And Michael is a thief. Through a mixture of deceit, good luck, and misfortune, these three damaged loners have come together at a secluded country home. Now all three have found what they needed most: a new beginning, a little kindness, a little love. Living off the manor's riches, tending its grounds, they leave the outside world far behind and build a happiness long denied them. That is, until the first unexpected visitor arrives...igniting a chain reaction that is spellbinding and disastrous. 303 pg.

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
Between 1854 and 1929, so-called orphan trains ran regularly from the cities of the East Coast to the farmlands of the Midwest, carrying thousands of abandoned children whose fates would be determined by pure luck. Would they be adopted by a kind and loving family, or would they face a childhood and adoles-cence of hard labor and servitude? As a young Irish immigrant, Vivian Daly was one such child, sent by rail from New York City to an uncertain future a world away. Returning east later in life, Vivian leads a quiet, peaceful existence on the coast of Maine, the memories of her upbringing rendered a hazy blur. But in her attic, hidden in trunks, are vestiges of a turbulent past. Seventeen-year-old Molly Ayer knows that a community-service position helping an elderly widow clean out her attic is the only thing keeping her out of juvenile hall. But as Molly helps Vivian sort through her keepsakes and possessions, she discovers that she and Vivian aren't as different as they appear. A Penobscot Indian who has spent her youth in and out of foster homes, Molly is also an outsider being raised by strangers, and she, too, has unanswered questions about the past. Moving between contemporary Maine and Depression-era Minnesota, Orphan Train is a powerful tale of upheaval and resilience, second chances, and unexpected friendship. 378 pg.

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty
Alice Love is twenty-nine years old, madly in love with her husband, and pregnant with their first child. So imagine her surprise when, after a fall, she comes to on the floor of a gym (a gym! she HATES the gym!) and discovers that she's actually thirty-nine, has three children, and is in the midst of an acrimonious divorce. A knock on the head has misplaced ten years of her life, and Alice isn't sure she likes who she's become. It turns out, though, that forgetting might be the most memorable thing that has ever happened to Alice. 432 pg.

Ruby by Cynthia Bond
Ephram Jennings has never forgotten the beautiful girl with the long braids running through the piney woods of Liberty, their small East Texas town. Young Ruby Bell, "the kind of pretty it hurt to look at," has suffered beyond imagining, so as soon as she can, she flees suffocating Liberty for the bright pull of 1950s New York. Ruby quickly winds her way into the ripe center of the city—the darkened piano bars and hidden alleyways of the Village—all the while hoping for a glimpse of the red hair and green eyes of her mother. When a telegram from her cousin forces her to return home, thirty-year-old Ruby finds herself reliving the devastating violence of her girlhood. With the terrifying realization that she might not be strong enough to fight her way back out again, Ruby struggles to survive her memories of the town’s dark past.  Meanwhile, Ephram must choose between loyalty to the sister who raised him and the chance for a life with the woman he has loved since he was a boy. Full of life, exquisitely written, and suffused with the pastoral beauty of the rural South, Ruby is a transcendent novel of passion and courage. This wondrous page-turner rushes through the red dust and gossip of Main Street, to the pit fire where men swill bootleg outside Bloom’s Juke, to Celia Jennings’s kitchen, where a cake is being made, yolk by yolk, that Ephram will use to try to begin again with Ruby. Utterly transfixing, with unforgettable characters, riveting suspense, and breathtaking, luminous prose, Ruby offers an unflinching portrait of man’s dark acts and the promise of the redemptive power of love. 368 pg.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
Meet Harold Fry, recently retired. He lives in a small English village with his wife, Maureen, who seems irritated by almost everything he does, even down to how he butters his toast. Little differentiates one day from the next. Then one morning the mail arrives, and within the stack of quotidian minutiae is a letter addressed to Harold in a shaky scrawl from a woman he hasn’t seen or heard from in twenty years. Queenie Hennessy is in hospice and is writing to say goodbye. Harold pens a quick reply and, leaving Maureen to her chores, heads to the corner mailbox. But then, as happens in the very best works of fiction, Harold has a chance encounter, one that convinces him that he absolutely must deliver his message to Queenie in person. And thus begins the unlikely pilgrimage at the heart of Rachel Joyce’s remarkable debut. Harold Fry is determined to walk six hundred miles from Kingsbridge to the hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed because, he believes, as long as he walks, Queenie Hennessey will live.Still in his yachting shoes and light coat, Harold embarks on his urgent quest across the countryside. Along the way he meets one fascinating character after another, each of whom unlocks his long-dormant spirit and sense of promise. Memories of his first dance with Maureen, his wedding day, his joy in fatherhood, come rushing back to him—allowing him to also reconcile the losses and the regrets. As for Maureen, she finds herself missing Harold for the first time in years. And then there is the unfinished business with Queenie Hennessy.A novel of unsentimental charm, humor, and profound insight into the thoughts and feelings we all bury deep within our hearts, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry introduces Rachel Joyce as a wise—and utterly irresistible—storyteller. 384 pg.

Me Before You by Jo Jo Moyes
They had nothing in common until love gave them everything to lose.Louisa Clark is an ordinary girl living an exceedingly ordinary life—steady boyfriend, close family—who has never been farther afield than their tiny village. She takes a badly needed job working for ex–Master of the Universe Will Traynor, who is wheelchair bound after an accident. Will has always lived a huge life—big deals, extreme sports, worldwide travel—and now he’s pretty sure he cannot live the way he is.Will is acerbic, moody, bossy—but Lou refuses to treat him with kid gloves, and soon his happiness means more to her than she expected. When she learns that Will has shocking plans of his own, she sets out to show him that life is still worth living. A Love Story for this generation, Me Before You brings to life two people who couldn’t have less in common—a heartbreakingly romantic novel that asks, What do you do when making the person you love happy also means breaking your own heart? 384 pg.

Worthy Brown’s Daughter by Phillip Margolin
Known for his contemporary thrillers, Phillip Margolin explores intriguing new territory in Worthy Brown's Daughter, a compelling historical drama, set in nineteenth-century Oregon, that combines a heartbreaking story of slavery and murder with classic Margolin plot twists. One of a handful of lawyers in the new state of Oregon, recently widowed Matthew Penny agrees to help Worthy Brown, a newly freed slave, rescue his fifteen year old daughter, Roxanne, from their former master, a powerful Portland lawyer. Worthy's lawsuit sets in motion events that lead to Worthy's arrest for murder and create an agonizing moral dilemma that could send either Worthy or Matthew to the hangman. At the same time, hanging judge Jed Tyler, a powerful politician with a barren personal life, becomes infatuated with a beautiful gold-digger who is scheming to murder Benjamin Gillette, Oregon's wealthiest businessman. When Gillette appears to die from natural causes, Sharon Hill produces a forged contract of marriage and Tyler must decide if he will sacrifice his reputation to defend that of the woman who inspired his irrational obsession. At Worthy's trial, Matthew reveals a stunning courtroom surprise and his attempt to stop the deadly fortune hunter ends in a violent climax. 345 pg.

Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall
In the summer of 1963, nine-year-old spitfire Starla Claudelle runs away from her strict grandmother’s Mississippi home.  Starla hasn’t seen her momma since she was three—that’s when Lulu left for Nashville to become a famous singer. Starla’s daddy works on an oil rig in the Gulf, so Mamie, with her tsk-tsk sounds and her bitter refrain of “Lord, give me strength,” is the nearest thing to family Starla has. After being put on restriction yet again for her sassy mouth, Starla is caught sneaking out for the Fourth of July parade. She fears Mamie will make good on her threat to send Starla to reform school, so Starla walks to the outskirts of town, and just keeps walking. . . .  If she can get to Nashville and find her momma, then all that she promised will come true: Lulu will be a star. Daddy will come to live in Nashville, too. And her family will be whole and perfect. Walking a lonely country road, Starla accepts a ride from Eula, a black woman traveling alone with a white baby. The trio embarks on a road trip that will change Starla’s life forever. She sees for the first time life as it really is—as she reaches for a dream of how it could one day be. 308 pg

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
One of the first questions people ask about The Things They Carried is this: Is it a novel, or a collection of short stories? The title page refers to the book simply as "a work of fiction," defying the conscientious reader's need to categorize this masterpiece. It is both: a collection of interrelated short pieces which ultimately reads with the dramatic force and tension of a novel. Yet each one of the twenty-two short pieces is written with such care, emotional content, and prosaic precision that it could stand on its own. The Things They Carried depicts the men of Alpha Company: Jimmy Cross, Henry Dobbins, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Norman Bowker, Kiowa, and of course, the character Tim O'Brien who has survived his tour in Vietnam to become a father and writer at the age of forty-three. They battle the enemy (or maybe more the idea of the enemy), and occasionally each other. In their relationships we see their isolation and loneliness, their rage and fear. They miss their families, their girlfriends and buddies; they miss the lives they left back home. Yet they find sympathy and kindness for strangers (the old man who leads them unscathed through the mine field, the girl who grieves while she dances), and love for each other, because in Vietnam they are the only family they have. We hear the voices of the men and build images upon their dialogue. The way they tell stories about others, we hear them telling stories about themselves. With the creative verve of the greatest fiction and the intimacy of a searing autobiography, The Things They Carried  is a testament to the men who risked their lives in America's mostcontroversial war. It is also a mirror held up to the frailty of humanity. Ultimately The Things They Carried and its myriad protagonists call to order the courage, determination, and luck we all need to survived. 272 pg.

Counterclockwise: My Year of Hypnosis, Hormones, and Other Adventures in the World of Anti-Aging
by Lauren Kessler
At this moment, one in three Americans is entering midlife, and many are wondering, "How did I get to be this old?" Plenty will turn to miracle creams, injections, fillers, and surgery to reverse the hands of time, but Kessler investigates the largely unexplored side of anti-aging: what it takes to be younger, not just look younger. Guided by an open but pleasantly skeptical mind, a thirst for adventure, and a sense of humor, she investigates America's youth obsession and decides, on a very personal level, what to do about it. She is at once the careful reporter, the immersion journalist, the self-designated lab rat, and a midlife woman who is not interested in being as old as her driver's license insists she is. "Counterclockwise" is a lively quest to discover how to maintain stamina, vitality, fortitude, and creativity right to the very end.  256 pg.

A Brief History of Time by Stephen W. Hawking
A landmark volume in science writing by one of the great minds of our time, Stephen Hawking’s book explores such profound questions as: How did the universe begin—and what made its start possible? Does time always flow forward? Is the universe unending—or are there boundaries? Are there other dimensions in space? What will happen when it all ends? Told in language we all can understand, A Brief History of Time plunges into the exotic realms of black holes and quarks, of antimatter and “arrows of time,” of the big bang and a bigger God—where the possibilities are wondrous and unexpected. With exciting images and profound imagination, Stephen Hawking brings us closer to the ultimate secrets at the very heart of creation. 212 pg.
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood. Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared. It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane’s bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard. So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War. The lieutenant’s name was Louis Zamperini. In boyhood, he’d been a cunning and incorrigible delinquent, breaking into houses, brawling, and fleeing his home to ride the rails. As a teenager, he had channeled his defiance into running, discovering a prodigious talent that had carried him to the Berlin Olympics and within sight of the four-minute mile. But when war had come, the athlete had become an airman, embarking on a journey that led to his doomed flight, a tiny raft, and a drift into the unknown. Ahead of Zamperini lay thousands of miles of open ocean, leaping sharks, a foundering raft, thirst and starvation, enemy aircraft, and, beyond, a trial even greater. Driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini would answer desperation with ingenuity; suffering with hope, resolve, and humor; brutality with rebellion. His fate, whether triumph or tragedy, would be suspended on the fraying wire of his will.  In her long-awaited new book, Laura Hillenbrand writes with the same rich and vivid narrative voice she displayed in Seabiscuit. Telling an unforgettable story of a man’s journey into extremity, Unbroken is a testament to the resilience of the human mind, body, and spirit. Text before notes is right at 400 pg. mark

Eliot Ness: The Rise and Fall of an American Hero by Douglas Perry
Eliot Ness is famous for leading the Untouchables against the notorious mobster Al Capone. But it turns out that the legendary Prohibition Bureau squad’s daring raids were only the beginning. Ness’s true legacy reaches far beyond Big
Al and Chicago. Eliot Ness follows the lawman through his days in Chicago and into his forgotten second act. As the public safety director of Cleveland, he achieved his greatest success: purging the city of corruption so deep that the mob and the police were often one and the same. And it was here, too, that he faced one of his greatest challenges: a brutal, serial killer known as the Torso Murderer, who terrorized the city for years.Eliot Ness presents the first complete picture of the real Eliot Ness. Both fearless and shockingly shy, he inspired courage and loyalty in men twice his age, forged law-enforcement innovations that are still with us today, and earned acclaim and scandal from both his professional and personal lives. Through it all, he believed unwaveringly in the integrity of law and the basic goodness of his fellow Americans.  352 pg             

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail  by Cheryl Strayed
A powerful, blazingly honest memoir: the story of an eleven-hundred-mile solo hike that broke down a young woman reeling from catastrophe—-and built her back up again. At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother's death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life: to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State—-and to do it alone. She had no experience as a long-distance hiker, and the trail was little more than “an idea, vague and outlandish and full of promise.” But it was a promise of piecing back together a life that had come undone. Strayed faces down rattlesnakes and black bears, intense heat and record snowfalls, and both the beauty and loneliness of the trail. Told with great suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild vividly captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her. 315 pg.

Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air: An Unconventional History of Ballooning by Richard Holmes
 Falling Upwards resurrects the daring men and women who first risked their lives to take to the air in balloons. Richard Holmes gives us another of his unforgettable portraits of human endeavor, recklessness, and vision, weaving together exhilarating accounts of early balloon rivalries, pioneering ascents over Victorian cities, and astonishing long-distance voyages. The terrifying high-altitude flights of James Glaisher helped to establish the science of meteorology as well as the notion of a fragile planet, while balloons were also used to observe the horrors of modern battle during the American Civil War. Here too are the many writers—Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, Jules Verne, and more—who felt the imaginative impact of flight and allowed it to soar in their work. Holmes tells the history of ballooning from every angle—scientific to poetic—through the adventurers and entrepreneurs, scientists and escapists, heroes and fools who were possessed by the longing to be airborne. 404 pg (with all the notes and index)

REMEMBER:  Return this page at the May book club meeting or before.


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1 comment:

3goodrats said...

This is great! I run a book group at my library and it has grown a bit recently, so our old informal way of voting on books is becoming cumbersome. This post has given me some good ideas. Thanks for sharing!