by George Ringwald

At a time when America's major diversions seem to be watching television, skimming the Internet, sending "letters" by e-mail or "reading" books on tape, it comes as a surprise -- a pleasant one, I may say -- to learn of the popularity of book clubs.

"They're a popular thing nationwide," observes Art Burton, who with his wife, Barbara Turner, is the owner of Arcata's Northtown Books, now 30 years in the business.

What's more, Burton adds, they are especially active in the Pacific Northwest, "which is known for its reading population, one of the bastions of book reading."

Humboldt County is happily a part of that bastion, with no fewer than eight active book clubs.

Two of the best known and longest-established book clubs in Humboldt County are the Fred Cranston group and the Hawkins group, led by the husband-wife team of Ben and Christine Hawkins.

Members of the Stevens Lane Book Club socialize at the dinner table. From left are Dr. Bruce Kessler, Pam Kessler, Chris Hawkins and Barbara Storm.


It is a mark of their informality that they have no official name, no club officers and no written rules.

In an interview at the Hawkins' Bayside area home, Ben said, "We call it the Stevens Lane Book Club."

"Oh, do we?" quizzically asks wife Chris. She adds, "This is a very casual thing."

At a November meeting of the Cranston group, Demetri Mitsanas, who teaches art history at Humboldt State University and who grew up in the Greek Peloponnesus town of Tripoli, was the designated discussion leader that night on the book Corelli's Mandolin, a novel based on life on a Greek island during the fractious time of German occupation in World War II.

Cranston group member Melanie Smith talks about a cat fight graphically described in Accordian Crimes. Listening are Sally Thonson, left, Alred Guillaume, Claire Courtney and Fred Cranston.

He opened by modestly acknowledging, "This is my first time at your book club, and I don't know the format ..."

There was an instant chorus of voices from his audience: "We don't have one!"

Jack Shaffer, a retired HSU psychology professor, who introduced Mitsanas and who had suggested the book, said, "The book was introduced to me by our poker club..." -- indicating the eclectic tastes and diversions of book club members.

At the close of the meeting, Mary Dalgleish, who had suggested a Ken Follett novel for the next term's reading (the Cranston and Hawkins groups both go by the university academic year), confided to me that she and her "significant other," Lloyd Fulton, were the founders of a group that calls itself the Society for Creative Anachronism.

They involve themselves, she said, in studies about "arranged wars and battle tactics, and a lot of heraldic research." As Dalgleish put it, "We're a bunch of weirdos, but we're harmless."

It comes as no surprise then to learn that one of the claims to fame of the man credited with starting the book club movement in Humboldt County was his expertise as a maker of home-brewed beer.

"The offshoot was really with Dan Brant," Ben Hawkins recalls. "We (he and Chris) were students at Humboldt, and he would have a discussion group at his house, maybe nearly 40 years ago. ... If there was anybody who was founder of this whole thing in Humboldt County, it probably would be Dan Brant. I remember reading Ulysses. And he invited some of his college students up there, and he made home brew." (And what goes together better than college students and home brew?)

Cranston's group, too, started from that offshoot, in about 1959. "So we're a schism from the days of Dan Brant," Hawkins said. "He was a biology teacher at Humboldt. He's now retired, and he's in a care home."

Fred Cranston, who at the age of 75 is still teaching math at Humboldt State although he officially retired 12 years ago, also remembers the home brew days. "But," he adds, "the rule was that we could have no alcohol until after 10 o'clock."

That is still the rule of the Cranston book club, which meets at members' homes twice a month during the academic year. Another rule is that the host must supply popcorn for the members to munch during the book discussion, which begins at 8:30.

Getting up on a book every two weeks is obviously a strain on some of the club's working members, and it occasioned a suggestion at the November meeting that they meet every three weeks instead. One woman, a stickler for the tried and true, objected, "We've been doing it this way for years. Why change horses in the middle of the stream?" (They wound up with a compromise, knocking off two of the scheduled meetings.) There was a round of applause when members learned that one of the books on the new schedule was "only 154 pages."

There were some 20 members in attendance that night, but one old-time member recalled, "Thirty years ago, there were as many as 40 people -- and they came regularly." Nowadays, attendance usually fluctuates between six and 12. Cranston recalls just one meeting -- not too far back -- when "no one showed up."

Frederick P. Cranston might well be a character for a book himself. In his office at HSU, where I first met him, he works at an appropriately cluttered desk, with well-stocked book shelves around him. He wears thin-rimmed glasses, has graying hair and a small trimmed beard, and is dressed casually in a short-sleeved shirt and slacks.

(Cranston's wife, Jeneral, who goes by the name of Jenny, is also a retired HSU professor, of theater arts, and is also a writer, who has turned out two books on drama for student teachers.)

Cranston, a physicist, came to Humboldt County in 1962 from Los Alamos, N.M. "I worked in the Los Alamos National Laboratory."

He adds, "Yes, I did what you're thinking of. Nothing with the A-bomb ... I worked on the hydrogen bomb.

"I worked on it for three years, and by 1956 we had enough bombs in our stockpile to destroy the world many times over, and I said, it's foolish to build any more bombs and decided I really didn't want to work on bombs anymore."

One thing he remembers appreciatively about Los Alamos was its "enlightened administration." He said, "At Los Alamos, all of the people in the administration said, 'Our job is to see that you people down in the labs get what you need when you need it, and to make your job as easy as possible.' That was the whole atmosphere at the laboratory; morale was tip-top.

"Other places I've been have not been that way ..." and after a brief pause, he adds, "including Humboldt State."

Indeed, a noted gadfly for years, Cranston got off his most recent stab at the present HSU administration in a guest column run by The Lumberjack Nov. 19. His parting shot: "If HSU is to continue as a student-centered campus, the administration must take the welfare of students and faculty into consideration."

He carries that philosophy over into his administrative chores for the book club. The members nominate and vote on the books to read and discuss, and Cranston takes the list to Northtown Books to order for the next term.

"I'm not the president or anything," Cranston says. "I'm just sort of the caretaker."

Ben Hawkins performs a similar task for the Stevens Lane Book Club, as he calls it.

"I go down to Northtown Books and in consultation with the owner or whoever is behind the desk, I usually pick out a stack of books (on loan) and bring them to the meeting, and other people are free to bring their own titles. ... Then we have a round of voting. There's always a bit of hullabaloo about how many times we can vote and so on, but we work it out."

One rule that these two clubs and others as well observe is that the books have to be available in paperback -- and even they are "not cheap anymore," as Christine Hawkins notes.

Northtown Books, one of two stores in downtown Arcata that handles new books, also keeps shelves for a number of women's book clubs.

They are: Lorraine's Book Club, A Group of One's Own (obviously borrowing on Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own), Shakespeare's Twisted Sisters and Women Who Read Too Much. The women are obviously more imaginative in their club names.

There are also two newer mother-and-daughter book clubs.

Northtown Books' Burton finds the clubs "sweet to deal with," but he does puzzle over some of their selections.

"Some of the lists are so bizarre I can't figure out who's in the group," he says. "Sometimes they'll choose a book that everybody hates."

Three of Shakespeare's Twisted Sisters tell of that reaction to a book called The Sheltering Sky. All nine members hated it -- "but we spent the whole night discussing it," they add.

Sheila Nitzel, a core member of the group that was organized in April 1991, goes on to say, "One of our favorites was Wild Swan. The first sentence is: 'My grandmother was a concubine for the emperor of China.' And it just goes on from there. It's been several years since we read it, and we still talk about it."

Bobbie McKay, another of the Sisters who met with me, puts in, "These are books I probably never would have read (if not for the book club)."

Art Burton describes Shake-speare's Twisted Sisters as "a fun group," and it certainly seems so, beginning with that intriguing name.

"We're an odd group," Nitzel concedes. The name came about because it was "something about Shakespeare having a sister."

(He in fact had four, according to the A. L. Rowse biography of the Stratford poet.)

Besides, Nitzel adds with a light laugh, "We decided we're a little bit intellectual."

Janelle Bohannan, the Sisters' designated historian, expands on that story of the name decision, noting that "someone thought of a heavy metal group called the Twisted Sisters, and we decided to include that -- not that we're into that kind of music."

Bohannan is a nurse case manager, and she notes of the club members, "We all pretty much work in health and human services."

Like several other book clubs, Shakespeare's Twisted Sisters opens with a potluck dinner. Also like some others, they find that potlucks can take surprising turns.

Michele Tourné says with a laugh, "One month everybody showed up at my house with chocolate and wine."

"One of the best potlucks we had," Bohannan remembers.

Lorraine Miller-Wolf, a photographer who founded the group bearing her name, said that when they started 12 years ago, they opened the evening without food, then tried just desserts and finally went to potluck.

"We have only two rules," she adds. "The person at whose home the group is meeting provides desserts, and the person who hosted last month's meeting provides the bread."

That, she explained, is because at one meeting they wound up with only desserts and at another with only bread.

Lorraine's group reads books mostly by women. "In 12 years," Miller-Wolf said, "we read only one book by a man."

Miller-Wolf just recently started a second mother-daughter book club, this for second and third graders.

Rebecca Stauffer and Heidi Bourne said the first mother-daughter club, which they launched last May, is aimed at older daughters.

Stauffer explained: "It coincided with the time when my daughter was 10, almost 11 now, and it's a developmental time in her life, when she's moving away from me, and I'm suddenly not so 'cool' anymore, you know. There's this pulling away, and I thought, what a nice way to keep in touch if we read the same books and we'd talk about them with friends and with other women."

Members of a mother-daughter book club, Margie and Maya Zwerdling and Kristen Calderwood.

"It was also the example of how long-term friendships can grow," Bourne put in. "Rebecca and I got to know each other within a couple months of the birth of our daughters. There was a group of us in an exercise class, all of whom had children within the previous two months. ... So it's a very big extended group of friends, and we expanded that to create a book club with the women who've got daughters. The boys aren't included."

(Crass chauvinism, sounds like to me. Obviously, the next book club has to be one of fathers and sons.)

Their mother-daughter club has grown now to 10 couples, and Stauffer and Bourne agree that's just enough.

The Hawkinses, who host all the club meetings in their Stevens Lane home, also worry about membership getting too big.

"Usually, it comes out to be about 12 or 14 people," said Ben Hawkins. "The magic number is somewhere around 15 or 16. When it gets too big, it becomes awkward. And if it's too small, by the same token, it's not as interesting a meeting."

(Ben Hawkins has been a biology teacher at College of the Redwoods for 30 years. Christine, too, was a public school teacher, and is now a private piano teacher, with a studio outside their home.)

"The food has always been of high interest to everybody (in their book club)," Christine Hawkins said. "Sometimes we have all salads, sometimes nearly all desserts come, because it is a true potluck."

One unwritten rule of their club is that there is no book discussion until after they move from the dining table. Another aim of the club now is to have a theme for the potlucks based on the book up for discussion.

At their December meeting, convened for a discussion of a Hispanic's work, Richard Rodriguez' Hunger of Memory, the dinner, of course, was Mexican; a lavish spread, and the Hawkinses were hard-pressed to seat the more than 20 people who showed up.

Ben Hawkins relates, "We recently read Angela's Ashes. It's about a poor family in Ireland, and Christmas was a big deal, because they were able to get a pig's head and cook it for the family. So what I did, I went to the Redwood Meat Packing Plant before the meeting and bought a pig's head for $10. Boiled it, put it on a platter garnished with nasturtium flowers, and when people came in to bring their food, there was this damned pig's head right up there with an apple in its mouth. And no one ate a bit of it, of course."

To set the scene for Angela's Ashes, a story about a poor family in Ireland, Ben Hawkins copied the pig's head Christmas dinner.

Chris picks it up, "Then the next book we read was Darwin's The Beak of the Finch, the story of evolution in the Galapagos. ... This is mostly about birds, so I thought somebody for sure is going to do chicken wings or something like that. Everybody had arrived except Betty and Dick Thompson, and nobody had brought chicken wings. Well, I'll be darned if Betty doesn't walk in and she's got a big tray of half chickens, I guess, on a mound of rice, and she's traced the bird's head of the finch, some with fat beaks, some with narrow ones. It was fun."

Betty Thompson, food columnist for The Journal, and husband Richard, who teaches physics at HSU, are regulars in both the Cranston and Hawkins book clubs.

"It's really awesome," Betty says of the Cranston group. "You really have to be a large page turner to keep up with them. ... I find it very stimulating, because I've read so many things I would never have come on (otherwise)."

One hears that repeatedly from book clubbers.

In a pre-dinner chat with Eric and Joann Olson at the Hawkins club meeting in December, with the wine flowing freely (none of this 10 p.m. standoff here), Eric, a deputy probation officer for Humboldt County, tells me, "Joann and I now have an entire book shelf full of books we never would have read. I've been richly blessed. For me, a book gains in depth from everybody's input."

Christine Hawkins put it this way: "It forces you to read books that you wouldn't ordinarily read. Lots of times, people will come and say, 'That's the worst book I've ever read. I never would have read that if it weren't for this group.' "

She laughs, and goes on, "And we all talk about why we even do this to ourselves. And we think, well, I guess it's because we miss school. It's really kind of like being in school."

Except that you don't get potluck dinners or even popcorn in book discussions at school. Nor do you have to worry about pre-test cramming in a book club.

Fred Cranston says of his club, "It's an open group. Anybody that wants to attend is welcome."

He adds, "We don't give an examination. Some people do like to come just to hear about the book, even though they haven't read it. And we tolerate that."

Hard to imagine that happening in the schoolroom.

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