Books and Bars
Meeting on the second Tuesday of the month at The Aster in Minneapolis
In a crowded, low-lit restaurant in Northeast, a young woman holds a microphone and gestures with her hand as she speaks, kind of flicking it back and forth as though pulling toward her the right words. “Can I see a show of hands for all the people who haven’t been able to stop thinking about this book since you’ve stopped reading it?”
A few hands go up. Ten at the most.
“Can I ask why?”
The book is The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. The restaurant is The Aster—with its red curtains and wood paneling and exposed brick an ideal place for any literary type. The occasion is Books and Bars, the Twin Cities’ largest and most successful book discussion group. The woman did not give her name, despite the general protocol of introducing oneself when the moderator hands you the microphone. One of the dissenters of the evening, she was also in the minority.
A word on Books and Bars.
Started in 2004 as a project of the now defunct Bound to Be Read book store in Saint Paul, Books and Bars is approaching its 100th book. “The idea that it’s a book club as a show is what I like,” says the moderator, Jeff, or Jefe, or “Mr. Kamin if you’re nasty,” who has been facilitating the event for the last six years. And that’s exactly what Books and Bars feels like: a thought-provoking, oftentimes emotional, massively entertaining show in which everyone participates. It works like this: Kamin darts all over the room going from a raised hand here to a twitching fuming and daresay epileptic gesture of the arm there. Participants take the microphone and speak for an average of 30 to 60 seconds, usually staying on topic, sometimes interjecting left-field information. The result is a lively 90 minute discussion on a book that one otherwise might have missed or simply set aside without a second thought.
The discussion points run the gamut.
“It made me realize how uncomfortable I am with white people writing in a black voice,” Megan says of Stockett’s book. “I don’t know whether that’s right or wrong. I just identified my own discomfort.”
“I lived in Jackson in the 1980s and this is very authentic,” says Miss Nancy from the back of the room. “Not much had changed in the 1980s.”
Kathy raises her hand and wrenches the microphone from Kamin with a shocking bloodthirstiness. “One of the things I focused on was the risk that the different characters assumed. I wanted to slap [the character] Miss Skeeter upside the head. In reality the risk that she took wasn’t that great for herself, but had potential terrible consequences for the maids.”
Paige shyly takes the microphone from Kathy. “I’m not so concerned with the risk that anyone took, but more of how bad of a writer she is.”
“About the risk thing,” says Brian, from the far corner. “What I liked was that she just used history as reference points to highlight the risks that the characters were taking. She wasn’t retelling history, she was using history to highlight those points. Specifically to point out their risks.”
Paige again: “I think the book makes light of a very important topic.”
This would be a good opportunity for MCB to interject a little left-field information of its own: What a wonderfully literary city we live in.
Kamin plays the part of moderator to a T. Cradled in his other hand is a 3×5 index card speckled with miniscule handwriting laid out in a way that makes it look more like a chart than a facilitator’s notes. When the discussion starts to lag or becomes trapped in one of those infinite feedback loops (which to be fair rarely happens), Kamin looks down at the card and brings up a new topic. “Could it be,” he ventures, “that maybe, just maybe, the success of this book with its reader depends on what generation you’re from?”
Hands shoot up all over the room.
“I do think it makes a difference what generation you’re in,” says a woman sitting near the front, after which Kamin breaks into a victory dance. “I’m 60 years old,” she continues, “and I remember when all this stuff happened, when MLK got shot. My father, I remember, told me to go out and buy a lot of gas because he thought the city would shut down. It’s personal, for me.”
“It’s not your mother’s book club,” is the bullet description on the website, and MCB can attest that it’s most certainly not. For the most part, MCB was impressed at the lack of useless, “I liked the book,” statements. More than anything, readers seemed to dig into the content of the book—what Stockett was trying to say with her writing. When a cute gentleman in green brought up the issue of Stockett’s freshman prose, the audience seemed unaffected. Everyone was in it for the story, and it was that story that readers fell in love with. The consensus was that The Help was an extremely successful selection due to its ability to generate conversation. Racism, unsurprisingly, was the topic of the night. At one point Kamin joked that he could barely make it across the room, it was so thick with white guilt1.
“This book is making me think of how I see racism represented in my own life,” says a young woman near the door. “I think we need to look at it not like ‘I’m gonna come in and help you,’ but more ‘I’m your neighbor, how can I help you?’ You can, with small action, do something about it.”
The room applauds.
Yet even with the great glowing cloud of white guilt settling over everyone’s skin and leaving little droplets of sweat (or was it simply the slowly increasing internal temperature of The Aster?), the atmosphere is always a relaxed one. Participants can supplement the discussion with one of The Aster’s many unique drinks2, coupled with a delicious salad, sandwich, or—their specialty—one of the flatbread pizzas. “I try to keep it positive, fun, and welcoming,” Kamin says. In this way, he excels. For those looking to expand their reading experience—for those looking to interface with other readers and more closely examine the books they read—Books and Bars is the perfect opportunity.
In July, Books and Bars will tackle the reading phenomenon of the century—all seven Harry Potter books. Kamin advised MCB that hopeful participants should make their reservations immediately, as HP fans are likely to seep out of the woodwork and bubble up from the sewers. In August, drop by for the discussion of Emma Donoghue’s Room.
Look for Part II of Most Definitely Not Your Mother’s Book Club: An Interview with Jeff Kamin, appearing on MCB sometime next week.
1: It should be noted that almost everyone in the room was white—something that MCB finds incredibly disheartening but definitely worth examining. Where were the minorities in this discussion? Why did a book that examines racism fail to attract those who are directly affected by it? The result was a room full of white people discussing a very significant problem, but what it felt like was a handful of kids standing around a rock wondering what kind of things might be under the rock, yet not one of them moves to pick it up and find out. Speculation, that’s the word.
2: They have a drink with chai and cognac. Point taken?