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LitClub:  Interesting Characters

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club interesting characters lg YEARS AFTER MED-SCHOOL and/or college, old friends picked up with one another and formed an online book club. Scattered along the East Coast, they managed a rendezvous in storied Cape May, New Jersey.

We talk with founder of the group, Amy Eschinger.

You "meet" online, right?
Yes—on Goodreads. We have 14 members, all told. But there are 8 of us—the core members—who participate regularly and actively.

Tell us your story—how you got the group together.

I'm a quintessential book nerd, who became disillusioned with my regular book club. It dawned on me that it was more of a social gathering than a serious book discussion group. I wanted something more.

Then what happened?
In 2013 I attended a med-school reunion where I spent a lot of time with old friends discussing books. When I got home, my husband said, "You know, those people are your ideal book club."

He was absolutely right! And since we were all separated by fair distances, an online group seemed like the perfect solution.

How has it worked out?
Wonderfully. We all live crazy lives: half of us are physicians, half have other careers, and most of us are also busy moms.

So the web works remarkably well for discussing books—allowing us the flexibility to write comments on our own time. We don't have to miss out due to the constraints of meeting at a specific time or place.

Plus, members can spend as much time as they want posting thoughtful, insightful comments about the current book.

Do you follow a special procedure?
We discuss books on three different threads.

We start off with a FIRST IMPRESSIONS thread for comments when we begin the book.

At the end of the month, we open up the DISCUSSION, which includes questions.

We close with a FINAL THOUGHTS thread for anything else that occurs to us.

Well, let's talk about what you've read.
Here's our list for the past 12 months:

Family Life
Cold Comfort Farm
All the Ugly and Wonderful Things
Every Note Played
Haunting of Hill House
Let the Great World Spin
Atomic Weight of Love
Flamingo Rising

How about some favorites over the years?
We have so many favorites its hard to choose, but I’d say our all-time favorite books are Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.

Any disappointments?
We've had a few over the years. We felt Mennonite in a Little Black Dress was juvenile, and Rhoda Janzen’s crass humor detracted from the weightier issues at hand—she was in an abusive relationship.

Although Coinman by Pawan Mishra came highly rated on Goodreads (can't always trust ratings), for us its supposed humor fell short: we felt like we were missing something.

Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul was a struggle for many of us. The subject matter was one we knew little about, and we had difficultly separating ourselves from the author’s misogynist tendencies.

Did any of your books lead to particularly good discussions?
Educated is such an unbelievable, true story, which lends itself to a great discussion. Having been through a lot of higher education ourselves, we found Tara’s story fascinating. We talked a lot about memoir, it’s accuracy, and whether or not accuracy really matters or is even possible. Finally, we always admire a strong female lead.

A few of us tackled Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. This is by far the most challenging book we’ve read on many levels. But those who stuck it out were rewarded with some fantastic writing and bonding over making it to the end—proving we could read tough, intellectual books out of our comfort zone.

How do you choose your books?
Each month a different member brings 5 suggestions and we vote via poll to choose a winner. Occasionally we all make suggestions for a themed month (Banned books, Books with Winter words in the titles, etc).

There is a nice mix of those who like classics, contemporary women’s lit, and nonfiction. We have a diverse selection of books to read every year.

Does the group engage in any special activities?
Those members who read a lot do side Reading Challenges within the club. Typically its a 22-26 book challenge to be completed within one year. Those who complete the challenge get a small prize.

Every February we celebrate our anniversary with literary quizzes and games. A favorite of mine is the member haiku. We all write haikus about ourselves or something going on in our lives at the time.

I just started a new feature called Monthly Lit Chat where we discuss some reading related topic like "how did you fall in love with reading," "which fictional character would you want to spend the day with and why? What would you do with them," etc.

Also, as I mentioned earlier, we do themed reads, typically Banned Books for September, and usually one other during the year.

A number of you met in Cape May, NJ. What was the occasion?
The occasion was our 5th anniversary, and we decided to really celebrate and go on a trip. We chose Cape May, NJ, as it was most central and within driving distance for many of us. It was nice for members to meet. They all know me, but many had never met in real life and have been discussing books together for years. 

We have plans for periodic literary weekends-away in the future!

You also have a favorite charity. How does that work?
I encourage members to support a literary charity that's dear to physicians, Reach Out and Read. The group is a nonprofit organization, which incorporates books into pediatric care to encourage families to read aloud together.

Any final words on behalf of INTERESTING CHARACTERS to our readers?
Yes. I’d encourage those serious readers reading this to consider joining an online book club or creating one.

If you want to seriously discuss books, have a busy schedule, and haven’t found a real-life club that is a good fit for you, an online group may be perfect.

It has taken some trial and error to figure out what works best for our group but its been a lot of fun in the process.

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