Friday, April 27, 2012

Zeitoun and a Book Group Update



I am miserably behind on book reviews, but this is a combination review and update about the library book group I started a few months ago -- the one that nearly disintegrated after the second month.

Last week we had our fourth meeting, to discuss the nonfiction book Zeitoun by Dave Eggers.   At the time I chose the book, I'd had a meeting where no one showed up, so I had absolutely no input from anyone when I had to choose the book so it could be included in the library's monthly newsletter.  I'd heard great things about it, and nonfiction always tends to lend itself to good discussions.  Plus it's not terribly long.

If you are not familiar with the book, here's the basic setup:  In this true story, Abdulrahmin Zeitoun is a Syrian immigrant living in New Orleans in 2005, on the eve of Hurricane Katrina.  He and his wife Kathy (an American who had previously converted to Islam before they met) have five children and are running a successful contracting business in New Orleans.  As it becomes apparent that this is no ordinary storm, Kathy takes the kids and the dog north to stay with family, while Zeitoun stays behind to help clients prepare, and to keep an eye on their rental properties.  He rides out the storm successfully, but after the levees break, he paddles around the city in an old canoe and ends up helping a lot of stranded people -- until he is arrested on suspicion of terrorism, and kept in horrible conditions in a makeshift jail without a phone call or legal representation.

I really liked the writing in this book, and the story is both fascinating and horrific (plus a very quick read).  The amount of research and detail is absolutely wonderful, and it was a great book for discussion because there were so many issues, including the treatment of Muslims in America, racial profiling, the family dynamic, and so on.

Before the meeting, I was a little concerned that the discussion itself might become heated or uncomfortable.  I knew a few of the people that would show up, but I had no idea how the rest would react or if arguments about religion and politics would break out.  We ended up with ten people at the discussion, which apparently is the largest book group meeting at this library branch in a long time!   But everyone got along very well, for which I was grateful.

My one problem, however, is that one of the group members seemed to have a very different idea of what the book discussion should entail.  I got the distinct impression that she thought I should be doing much more research and giving deep background about the book, rather than just being prepared to lead a discussion.  This book group member also seems extremely opinionated and vocal about a lot of things, especially about the selection of future book selections.

Has anyone else had to deal with difficult people in book discussion groups?  How did you handle it?  And how much research and preparation do you do when you're leading a book discussion?  I'd be grateful for any suggestions.

15 comments:

  1. My group had a difficult member a few years ago. We had read Angela's Ashes and said member turned out to be incredibly racial, saying sex under the use of alcohol even if consensual is rape and several inappropriate comments on race and religion being unmoving to disagreement. My mother and I being co-moderaters tried to avert attention to other members as to how they felt which helped the situation, but in the end I made an executive decision to "lose" her email. Anyway, I'd suggest saying "lets give others a chance to speak" and if her behavior continues maybe have a one on one talk about what is/is not appropriate.

    As for research, I don't see that as a requirement. If your member is so concerned about deep background information suggest she do it, she will learn much more on the subject if she provides the information herself.

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    1. She's not too difficult about letting other speak, she's just very demanding as to what she expects from me as the moderator. And she does do TONS of research -- and she expects me to do the same. Le sigh.

      Good call about getting rid of your problem member.

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  2. I think you're doing fine, Karen. That particular member (ahem!) has always been like that. She is not interested in the book, really, but in the author or the background. Half the time she doesn't even bother to read the book, just looks up pages of research to bring to the group and she chides the book club leaders (ahem) for their not using the literary crit that the library has to offer. Ahem. Yeah...

    I was not interested in this book before - for some reason, Hurricane Katrina is not a subject that interests me - but racial profiling, especially for Muslims, DOES interest me a lot, so I'm glad you reviewed this. I wish I could come to your book club sometime!

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    1. I really wish you could have come, I know you would have had some great insightful comments to share with the group.

      It's really starting to annoy me that she doesn't even actually READ THE BOOK. To me, the point of the discussion is to discuss what's written! I think my job as moderator is to lead the discussion, make sure everyone gets a chance to speak, keep us on topic, and bring up discussion questions if we run out of topics. Background about the author or topic is nice, if we have time, but I don't think it's crucial.

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  3. I read this book in a day and loved it. It made me so angry, but in a thoughtful, eye-opening way. I've passed the book along to a handful of people. It's one of those books I think everyone should read.

    It sounds like your book club member needs to lighten up.

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    1. I agree, it made me really angry and sad. It's really well written and presented, but I can't call it a favorite because it's so sad. It was one of the books for World Book Night and I'm really glad it was on the list.

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  4. Nice that so many people showed up! The book is great for book group discussion.

    I have a book group (held at people's house, so very informal) where we don't really research. We print out the reading group questions for a book if we can find them online and take it from there. As it's your group, do it the way you like!

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    1. I was so pleased to have so many -- especially since we didn't have that many copies! I think everyone had read it -- I actually had to go to a college library to get a copy, and at least one person read the e-book version.

      Do you print the questions out and pass them out at the beginning of the group, or distribute them before the meeting? That's a good idea.

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    2. Not even! I usually print one or two copies and then we pass it around. Someone will say: "Oh, this question!" and we'll discuss it, and then someone else may mention another question that she wants to discuss, etc.

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    3. Great idea! I hope you don't mind if I borrow it.

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  5. I would probably tell the person the next time she has so many "great" ideas about how you should run the book group that she's perfectly welcome to start her own group ... elsewhere. I don't think there's any right way to run a group. Just do whatever you have the time/energy for and interest in.

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    1. Oh, that is so tempting!! If she complains about it, I might just do that -- I've also been tasked to take over another discussion group since we had a staff member leave. Maybe I'll just play dumb and act like it would be so great if she did that, like she'd be doing me a favor!

      Luckily my boss and the rest of the staff know her, so if she complains they won't hold it against me. They know she's difficult.

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  6. Wow. I am probably preaching to the choir here, but what's the point of joining a book group without actually reading the book being discussed? I am sorry you have a difficult member :-( As I've never been in a book group, I can't really give you any help except to perhaps call the member out on it once in a while. (I am a very direct person, though, so this may not work for you.) Maybe when she veers into the author's life or something, ask, "Do you think that this experience impacted the way he wrote this book? What scene really exemplifies that to you?" That may help pointedly show her that she has to read, too!

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  7. To be fair, at my group for Zeitoun she had read the book (and came prepared with STACKS of notes). But it is especially annoying that she criticized another group and hadn't read the book, just researches it and expects the group leaders to do the same.

    She sat across from me and was giving me the hairy eyeball for most of the group. It was pretty irritating.

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