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Over drinks and food, book club members embrace the Speakeasy spirit

Lauren McCloskey, left, facilitator for the Howard County Library's Speakeasy book discussion group, with Janis Johnson of Columbia, right, at Seasons 52 restaurant, where they were discussing "The Strangler Vine," by M.J. Carter. Johnson joined the group when it started about one and a half years ago.
Lauren McCloskey, left, facilitator for the Howard County Library's Speakeasy book discussion group, with Janis Johnson of Columbia, right, at Seasons 52 restaurant, where they were discussing "The Strangler Vine," by M.J. Carter. Johnson joined the group when it started about one and a half years ago. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

"I think I don't know what a man considers a traditional male voice," said Stephanie Holeman, 39, chatting over a meal and beverages at Seasons 52 Wine Bar and Grill at The Mall in Columbia.

In the small circle of people gathered last week to discuss the book "The Strangler Vine," Lauren McCloskey, 28, chimed in that perhaps the author, a woman publishing under the name M.J. Carter, "chose to sound like a male writer so people would pick her book up."

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The conversation, held amid the social setting of a bustling restaurant, is typical for Speakeasy — an unusual book club hosted by the Howard County library system.

Speakeasy is the only county library book club that meets off library premises, said McCloskey, an instructor and research specialist with the system who facilitates club meetings.

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For the past 18 months, the club — usually a core group of between eight and 20 members — has met regularly for happy-hour food, wine and lively literary conversation.

Holeman, an Elkridge resident, has been a regular since the spring. She said the club's name drew her.

"Speakeasy means wine, and I'm there," she said, though she opted for tea at Wednesday's session.

The county's move to launch an off-site book club for adults follows a national trend mixing literature with libations, an effort to attract readers in their 20s and 30s. A similar effort, Books at Bars, operates in Anne Arundel through that county's library system.

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Howard County's club was launched by McCloskey's predecessor at the Howard County library, Jinelee DeSouza, and draws animated adults of all ages.

"I've been here since the beginning when Jinelee was the facilitator; I enjoyed it so much I've come back ever since," said Janis Johnson, 72, a library patron who lives in Columbia. An avid reader who loves to talk about what she reads, Johnson said the book club keeps her "out of a rut."

"The club alternates between choosing fiction and nonfiction; I normally don't read much nonfiction, so this broadens my horizons," she said. "There've been a few [books] I wasn't crazy about, but I enjoy the discussion and the meetings."

McCloskey makes the book choices. She puts in six to eight hours reading each selection, then another few hours researching the author and historical context, reading reviews and preparing questions for the meetings.

"The choices are so eclectic that members get the opportunity to discover books they wouldn't choose personally; it's rewarding sharing new perspective with other members," McCloskey said.

There's one down side to being the facilitator — because she's "on the clock" at meetings, McCloskey forgoes the wine. But she does enjoy the food.

December's title, "The Strangler Vine," is the first of three in the Blake & Avery Series, written by award-winning English author, historian and biographer Miranda Carter. The book is a Victorian detective story set in 1837 Calcutta, when the East India Co. ruled India.

The small gathering of three at last week's Speakeasy meeting — the low turnout was likely because of the holidays — all agreed that "The Strangler Vine" started out feeling a little "tedious." Their consensus, though, was that the historical notes at the beginning of the novel and a Hindu glossary were helpful.

"The old-style spelling put me more into the period of the time," Holeman said.

Diving into an animated discussion of red herrings, pawns, "thuggery," betrayal and willful ignorance, the women talked about the characters as if they knew each one intimately, commenting on their motivations, interrelationships and betrayals.

"I'm OK with not being able to figure it out, as long as the main character doesn't know anything I don't know," Holeman said.

"They didn't know who to trust," Johnson said.

Nearby diners could listen in on the lively conversation and might have picked up some colorful trivia. For instance, that opium can be chewed — a factoid gleaned from the novel.

But the conversation can stray from literature. For instance, it was explained that "pickleball" is a cross between tennis, pingpong and badminton that doesn't require a lot of running. That tidbit has nothing to do with the novel, but it came up in the discussion.

Members also discussed other books they've read, such as "Emily, Alone," by Stewart O'Nan and "The Water Knife," a thriller by Paolo Bacigalupi.

At last week's session, McCloskey brought copies of the book for the Jan. 25 meeting, "Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics" by Richard Thaler. After that, "Radiance: A Novel" by Catherynne Valente, will be discussed at the Feb. 22 gathering.

McCloskey hopes the choices will lead to lively discussion for the new year.

"The most stimulating discussion happens when some of the club members like a book and some don't," she said. "Then we have something to talk about."

The Speakeasy book club meets from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on the fourth Wednesday of each month, except November. Meetings are open to all. Registration is preferred. Call 410-313-7800.

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