Church members enjoy book discussions, even when they disagree

When most people think about reading at church, usually only one book — the “Good Book” — comes to mind as acceptable to study and discuss at length.

That’s not the case at Grace in the Desert Episcopal Church, 2004 Spring Gate Lane. Inside the parish hall, congregation members meet monthly to chat about much more recently published best-sellers, including “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins, and Sara Gruen’s “Water for Elephants.”

The church is one of many throughout the nation and in Southern Nevada that sponsors a book club as a fellowship activity for its members.

“I think it’s a common misconception that we’re only reading religious-based books or religious history or nonfiction religion” literature, said Darlene Albert, who joined Grace in the Desert’s book club three years ago and serves as its organizer. “We’ve read books from many genres.”

Albert said that variety is probably what keeps the book club’s eight regular female members coming back to meetings at 7 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month. (While nonchurch members and men are welcome to attend book club meetings, Albert said they rarely do.)

Members, who range from middle-aged to seniors, are tasked with selecting the books that the club reads, scheduling titles as far as six months in advance “so we have plenty of time to get the book and read it,” Albert said.

The club exposes its members to genres “that you normally wouldn’t reach out and read. I know I get stuck in my murder-mystery (books), but this kind of forces me … to read something different and to have someone to discuss it with and learn something,” she said.

Sue Pickell helped found Grace in the Desert’s book club four years ago and remains an active member. “I love to read, and I like to hear what people say about the things I read, and sometimes am very surprised at the different interpretations of the same words.”

Case in point: Pickell, 75, recalled how she and a fellow book club member butted heads over the novel “Annie Freeman’s Fabulous Traveling Funeral,” by Kris Radish.

“I thought it was a great concept and I just thought it was fascinating,” she said, “and my friend thought it was horrible. She said, ‘I didn’t even finish it.’ ”

Following a hiatus (which many book clubs routinely take during the summer months or winter holiday season to accommodate members’ hectic schedules), Grace in the Desert’s club is set to discuss “The Monuments Men” at its September meeting.

Additional titles slated for later this year include Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and “If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name: News from Small-Town Alaska” by Heather Lende.

According to Diana Huff, founder and moderator of Mountain View Presbyterian Church’s Book Leaf book club, it is easygoing discussions about literary works that members most enjoy.

“We are very open to the fact that some (members) will like (the book), some will not,” she said. “We maintain the viewpoint that all ideas are accepted. If you don’t like a character, that’s perfectly fine.”

Founded in 2009, the club is an offshoot of a larger women’s organization at the church at 8601 Del Webb Blvd.

The book club boasts a dozen female members — about eight of whom regularly attend monthly meetings on Friday mornings either at the church or club members’ homes.

Book Leaf members, who range in age from 60 to 90, are charged with selecting the books to be read. Previous titles have included the women’s fiction novel “Between Sisters” by Kristin Hannah, and the satire “Snobs” by Julian Fellowes.

Some titles are selected from Oprah Winfrey’s popular book club list; others are derived from best-seller lists. “Or, just simply, someone has read a good book” and wishes to share it with the group, Huff explained. “It’s nice to read something someone else has enjoyed.”

At meetings, a member is selected to serve as the “reviewer” and asks the others “a few questions: ‘Did you like the book? Did you like the character? … What do you think the theme was? Where does the title apply?’ ” One member, she said, presents maps and shares facts about the location where the story takes place.

The club recently read “The Book Thief,” by Markus Zusak, which is set in Nazi Germany during World War II. Huff said literature referencing that era has proven particularly popular with Book Leaf members, given their ages and life experiences.

“They remember the war, and of course for those of us who either weren’t born or were babies (then), the whole (discussion) is absolutely exciting because (the account is) first-person.”

While religious-themed books don’t often make it onto the club’s reading schedule, members have not forgotten the faith that binds them. At meetings, they offer prayers for their departed “sisters” and others who are experiencing difficulties in life.

“They’re just things that we do as Christians,” Huff said.

The opportunity to build stronger bonds with her fellow churchgoers is what prompted Courtney Patrick nearly a year ago to co-found the Between the Lines book club at Northwest Community Church of Las Vegas, 101 S. Rancho Drive.

“We were really just looking for community. We go to church and we say ‘Hi,’ and then we go home,” Patrick said. “We were looking for really just friendship and a place to build those friendships for women … because we just didn’t have that venue.”

That “venue” turned out to be the living room of 29-year-old Patrick’s northwest valley home. That is where the book club’s seven regular members meet monthly in the evenings to discuss the merits of books whose subjects usually focus on women and their relationships.

“One of the things we said when we started (the club) was that we wanted the books to teach us something,” Patrick said, and more importantly, “to stimulate the conversation.”

“We just wanted to have somewhere to start” lengthy discussions. At one book club meeting, “I think we spent an entire night until 2 in the morning talking about people’s childbirth stories; so it just kind of goes from there.”

The time to bond with others is especially important, Patrick said, because most of the club’s members, who range in age from their late 20s to 50s, “all have jobs and lives and church and all kinds of stuff” that otherwise keeps them busy.

That is why members often select books that are “fun to read, but that would make us think and kind of inspire us to keep the relationships going,” Patrick said.

The first book they tackled was the best-selling novel “The Red Tent,” by Anita Diamant, about the lives of women during biblical times.

“Some of us had read it before, but it definitely spurred on conversation for hours,” she said.

It also prompted Between the Lines members to put their culinary skills to the test, as elaborate meals themed to the books they read have become a much-anticipated part of each meeting.

Patrick, who works as a personal chef, recalled that “quite a spread” was served while discussing “The Red Tent.” The food element adds “a lot of fun” to the experience.

Book club meetings provide “a night when we can come together and connect outside of work and school and whatever else we’re all doing with the kids and families and husbands,” she said. “I think that the relationships that have been building have been the best thing.”

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