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May 19, 2008

Book Club Adventures on Grand Cayman

Posted by carol
Books really do bring people together. This idea was crystalized for me last Friday night in the Cayman Islands, of all places. I was invited down there by one of our Blog contributors, Debra Linn from Books & Books, who manages the book club events for the store. Along with Lisa See, the author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love I was asked be part of the lineup for their first book club event at the Cayman store.

As background, Grand Cayman has a population of about 50,000. Before the Books & Books store opened at Camana Bay, readers on the island had limited places to buy books. In fact, many of those who I spoke with mentioned that they would go to a book swap at the local animal shelter (actually I think the dog rescue) to get many of their books. Thus when a store which is as robustly stocked and beautifully merchandised as Books & Books comes to town not only do readers discover books to read, they also find other readers.

This event was the sixth in the store's International Authors Series and the first with a book club theme. We wondered how many people would be there since there were so many unknowns. Sally, the store manager, assured us that people were going to gravitate to an event like this as it was just the kind of thing they were looking for. That was evident when I got to the store at 6:30PM and was told that folks had started gathering in the seats as early as 6PM. By the time the event started the group had swelled to 80 people and at least 20 others moseyed in during the program. I have been to author events in New York City where authors and store people would be thrilled with half that number!

Lisa was a PERFECT choice for the author guest for this event as her novels, especially Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, have become beloved discussion books among book groups. During my talk I mentioned how Lisa's work is an example of a book where readers can learn something about a culture that they may not have explored. I challenged the audience and asked who could read Snow Flower and not "Google" footbinding. As soon as I said this there was an appreciative roar of acknowledgement among the audience. It was very special to be out of the States connecting with people via the medium of books and have a comment resonate so resoundingly. Lisa's talk and the Q&A session that followed further cemented this feeling as she shared stories of the research behind the book --- and how she came to write it. I have seen Lisa speak about this book on three other occasions, but there was something about this talk that made it even more special. There was a relaxed atmosphere to the evening and there was a true feeling that the audience was not jaded by moments like this, but rather excited about the opportuity to be at the core of something pretty special --- a new home for booklovers.

The next step was to get the readers mingling. Debra is the ultimate events planner and as always had this covered. She puts great thought into terrific mixer ideas for her book club events that help bring people together and she employed many of those here. Upon arriving at the event each attendee picked up a name tag that also had the name of one of the books that we were talking about that evening. After the formal part of the event readers were asked to find three other people with the same title on their nametag. Once they had their group together they were to head to a spot in the store where they would be rewarded with an advance reading copy of an upcoming summer title. As soon as Debra gave the word for people to start their search there were adults racing around the room with the speed of small children playing musical chairs to be the first to be awarded galleys. It was really fun to see their excitement.

It was lovely to see people coming together to talk about the books and authors who they love --- and to share book club ideas. I walked around the room asking people what their groups were reading --- lots of literary choices among this group ---- and shared more about the titles that I was recommending: The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, Things I Want My Daughters to Know by Elizabeth Noble, Sheer Abandon by Penny Vincenzi and Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult. Hearing the readers discussing their favorites --- and talking about those that generated the most conversation --- was as much fun as hearing how the groups had come together.

Many of the Caymanians are ex-Pats from England and Australia, and it was fun to hear their British expressions and the word "brilliant" being used to describe the books that they were talking about. They also are proud of the island, and I was given tons of hints about things to do while I was there. This trip had snuck up on me and I had done no research about it before I left and thus I was enjoying these ideas for swimming and snorkeling locations as much as they were loving the book recommendations.

The following day as Susanna Blackburn, who works with the Camana Bay development project, was driving us to the airport, she mentioned that she had been reading Peony in Love the night before and just loving it after hearing Lisa's talk. She felt it was such a special experience after hearing the background that Lisa had shared. Aside from her charming accent, the driving on the right hand side of the road and the roundabouts that reminded me again that we were out of the country (as well as glad that she, not me, was driving), I could have been having this same conversation with a reader in the States. Her enthusiasm and excitement were great to see and made me realize how much fun it will be for authors who visit here in the future. The audience clearly left knowing how special moments like this can be. Tomorrow's post will be about the book club event in Coral Gables that followed this one and the author who I discovered there.

---Carol Fitzgerald