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Book clubs evolve and grow in popularity

A mind, body and soul theme sets the

A mind, body and soul theme sets the tone for the book club that meets in Northport with members, from left, Rita Buttle, Carmela D’Angelis, Bernadette Makis, Mikala Bram Roberg and Carol Malia. This group discusses books about self-discovery and healing. Other clubs select locally themed works such as "Sag Harbor," by Colson Whitehead, a novel set in 1980s Long Island. (Feb. 11, 2011) Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

When members of a book club in Sands Point became fascinated with books about life behind bars, they didn't stop with reading. They wanted to talk with the authors, too.

"I thought: Why not invite the author," said Wendy Korn Heppt, 53, a freelance writer from Port Washington whose book club has been meeting diligently each month for seven years. So she used Twitter to contact Piper Kerman, author of "Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison."

Kerman was eager to attend.

"Book clubs have a special authority because they are committed, voracious readers who ask poignant questions," said Kerman, 41. She was imprisoned after being convicted in 2003 of drug smuggling and money laundering in connection with events 10 years earlier, when she was a recent graduate of Smith College.

Kerman said she finds visiting clubs incredibly gratifying: "It's what every writer dreams of, meeting people directly who love to read."

Inviting authors to meetings is just one way book clubs have evolved even as their popularity has grown. Some groups specialize, narrowing their book selections according to a theme.

One group that keeps the reading list in tight focus has a Mind, Body and Soul theme. "We started as a rosary bead group," said Rita Buttle of Northport.

Members decided to read Joel Osteen's "Become a Better You: 7 Keys to Improving Your Life Every Day," and after that "I stuffed fliers in my friends' mailboxes inviting them to form a club," Buttle said. "We put down our rosary and began reading self-discovery and healing books."

Nassau and Suffolk libraries assist patrons who want to start groups by providing reading lists and discussion questions.

The Syosset Public Library was one of the first to offer Book Club in a Bag, according to assistant director Lisa Caputo, which includes a list of books and a binder with questions to discuss. Popular club selections include the novels "White Tiger," about class struggles in India by Aravind Adiga, and Victoria Lustbader's "Hidden," set in 1920s New York City.

At Roslyn's Bryant Library, Elizabeth Olesh, manager of outreach services for Nassau Library System, has run a book club of 10 core members since 2005. She also encourages readers to join Long Island Reads (longisland reads.wordpress.com), sponsored by the Nassau Library System and the Public Libraries of Suffolk County.

Now in its ninth year, Long Island Reads chooses one book for patrons to read during National Library Week (April 10-16), and then arranges discussion forums. This year's selection is "Sag Harbor" by Colson Whitehead, a novel set in the 1980s about a black student at an elite prep school who spends summers in Sag Harbor.

Of course, book clubs can be good for the book publishing business.

Because of clubs' popularity, the Syosset library may order up to 10 copies of a given book, Caputo said. And Jennifer Hart, vice president and associate publisher of HarperCollins who created the popular Book Club Girl blog (bookclub girl.com), said such groups absolutely help sell books.

"Books like 'The Art of Racing in the Rain' by Garth Stein hit critical mass by being selected through book club readers," Hart said of the novel about a race car driver narrated by his dog. "Clubs are directly fueling book sales in the trade paperback sector."

Next up for the Sands Point group is "The Namesake" by Jhumpa Lahiri, a novel about the experience of being caught between cultures.

"If our kids were all the same age then our conversations would revolve around sippy cups or college applications," Heppt said. "Our book club is ageless and opens up conversations about anything -- even prison life!"

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