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May 13, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, May 13, 2005

Reading out loud Reading out loud (May 13, 2005)

Kepler's hosts fiction, poetry groups

by Diana Reynolds Roome

"Wow, this is good, this is good!" mutters one member in the circle of 20 readers at a recent meeting of Kepler's fiction book group. The discussion, concerning Paula Fox's "Desperate Characters," has been getting heated (though always good-natured) and has flowered into some major insights about the novel's more obscure points.

"Not everyone likes the novel, but the discussion makes it come alive," said Meg Waite Clayton, herself a novelist. "There's a long tradition here -- if Marian likes it, I won't!" she laughed, indicating a longstanding group member. "I love to hear what she says, as it makes me think from a different angle."

Reading is a solitary exercise (for most adults at least). Kepler's bookstore in Menlo Park has been encouraging that communication between authors and readers ever since it opened 50 years ago. More recently, it has tapped into an opposite impulse -- to share what is essentially a private experience -- by developing a range of reading groups. Currently, Kepler's runs groups that bring together enthusiasts of contemporary fiction, speculative fiction, Spanish fiction and poetry. (There have also been murmurs about starting a few more.)

Molly McCall has been moderator of the fiction group for six years, having previously been in charge of Kepler's author events. With a degree in English literature from Stanford, she has always had "a strong interest in writing and books."

"My most important role is the selection of a good, meaty book. Some are amazing and wonderful but don't lend themselves to discussion," McCall said.

The fiction group, which meets on Monday evenings once a month, usually attracts around 15 people, with a core of regulars, some of whom have been coming for years. The evening of "Desperate People" saw 20 people sitting uncomplainingly on hard folding chairs at the back of the store. The conversation got rolling with a brief comment by each member, along with a rating on a scale of 1 to 5, giving everyone a chance to state a view unbiased by others' opinions and for quieter people to get into the discussion right from the start.

"The writing is the star," stated one enthusiastically, while from further around the circle came the terse remark: "The best thing I can say is it's short." Reading the introduction first threatened to ruin the experience of the book, opined another. Another reader admired the novel's "compressed intensity." Gradually the discussion broadened into a consideration of various aspects of the novel -- its plot, expression, characters and intention.

McCall occasionally picked up a point and encouraged people to expand upon it. With some close textual analysis involving a repeated image, and a quote from Thoreau that provided an apt philosophical background for the novel, the hour stretched on to an hour and a half, with nobody especially eager to leave.

"It's something so magnificent," said McCall, who begins each meeting with a short introduction about the author and the book's publication history. "All we have in common is this book and this circle. It's such a moving exercise to have people reading authors' writing and sharing their experience in this personal way."

Even more personal is the poetry group, where people bring the results of their solitary tussles with words and share them in front of a microphone on a Sunday night each month. This is a reading group without discussion -- the poetry itself is the main event -- though moderator Joe Chevalier is always open to comments. Sometimes the turnout is so big he must impose a five-minute rule, so that everyone has a chance to read.

Attendance is usually bigger during the summer, when students have more time to be creative and can test the waters in front of an audience of fellow poets and sympathetic listeners. Though many of the poets are young, there's a range of age and background, and the energy is very positive, according to Chevalier, who also works at Kepler's. More mature poets, some of whom have established their own reading groups in the area, see it as "a good way to spread the idea and excitement of poetry."

Chevalier, who writes poetry, reads his own work on occasion but also likes to introduce some of his favorite poets, such as Gary Snyder, Robert Hass, Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds and Denise Levertov.

"I've always found the reading of other writers to be really productive ... a way of getting a new perspective," he said.

Perspective is a vital part of the Spanish fiction group, according to founder Joan Molitoris. The group has been going strong for more than five years, growing from four participants to around a dozen in the process.

"We vary the readings as much as possible, from region to region, time periods and genres," said Molitoris, associate director of the Stanford Language Center and a lecturer in Spanish.

"Everyone is encouraged to contribute their own social, political, historical background and life experiences."

Group participants are mostly native or heritage Spanish speakers, though a number are non-native who want to improve or maintain their Spanish skills. It can be a challenge to find books that originate from all parts of the Spanish-speaking world, Molitoris said, and she's always open to suggestions. It's easiest to find books from Spain, Mexico, Cuba and Argentina, though the group is always on the lookout for works from areas they haven't read yet. The only unbreakable rule is that the book must have been originally published in Spanish.

The range of possibilities is even wider for speculative fiction, a catch-all term covering science fiction, fantasy, alternative history and cross-genre books that defy easy categorization. Choices range from classic to contemporary, covering Anthony Burgess's "A Clockwork Orange" and Margaret Atwood's "Oryx and Crake" to the work of Neil Gaiman and Ursula le Guin. Established in 1999, it is also run by Chevalier.

"They expect it to be exciting," Chevalier said. "The books we read have more imagination and though we're fairly critical, we're more willing to go somewhere unexpected. We have very spirited discussions."

The group has around 10 people showing up on a typical night -- an ideal size, with everyone getting a chance to speak. As with the fiction group, there are at least a dozen regulars who come often, with at least one new face.

"I've been coming since 1997, and I've moved a couple of times and every time I return. I have to come back here," said Rachel Sheinbein of the fiction group. "It's such a diverse group. And it's so addicting."

Judy McNeely used to attend eight book groups, including one for Stanford alumni. She now attends four but she still rates Kepler's group the highest of all. This month, the fiction group is reading "Wise Blood" by Flannery O'Connor. It was written around the time Kepler's first opened, just 50 years ago.
Upcoming meetings:
The Spanish book group will discuss Alejo Carpentier's "Los Pasos Perdidos" on May 16 at 7:30 p.m. The fiction book group will discuss Flannery O'Connor's "Wise Blood" on May 23 at 7:30 p.m. and Michael Ondaatje's "In the Skin of the Lion" on June 27. The speculative fiction book group will discuss Cory Doctorow's "Eastern Standard Tribe" on June 12 at 7 p.m.

"Sunday Night Poets" will take place next on June 5 at 7 p.m. Sign-up begins at 6:45 p.m. at the podium.

Kepler's is located at 1010 El Camino Real in Menlo Park. For more information please call (650) 324-4321 or visit

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