Readers find spirituality, friendship at Laurel book clubs

Laurel's fascination with leisure reading reaches far beyond its schools, libraries, bookstores and even the Internet; community book clubs have been meeting face-to-face in private homes for decades.

In the public sector, the tri-county public libraries and One Maryland One Book — a statewide, community project piloted by the Maryland Humanities Council in its eighth year — offer programs that Andrea Lewis, program officer at One Maryland One Book, said "are something we hope further opportunities for people to come together in their communities."


Last year, almost 8,000 Marylanders read "The Distance Between Us: A Memoir," by Reyna Grande, and attended free public events held in the fall. The Prince George's County Memorial Library System is participating in the project again this year.

The 2015 title selection, "The Boys in the Boat," by Daniel James Brown, will be the focus of meet-ups at public libraries, schools, museums, bookstores and community and senior centers all over the state.

In Laurel, faith-based, author-led discussion groups have recently found their way to Towne Centre at Laurel, Main Street and Russett.

At the new Towne Centre Panera Bread, author Angela Gracey leads a leadership development ministry that began meeting Saturday mornings in March to discuss Gracey's book, "The Way Makers, Ambassadors for Christ."

A South Laurel resident and founder of Angelic Grace Ministries International, Gracey said she finished discussing part 1 of her book on April 4 and will begin part 2 on April 25.

Part book club and part instructional development, readers are not required to preregister and can purchase "The Way Makers" online or at the Saturday meetings.

Laurel resident Anthony Dew, of CD Media Destination, said attending the meet-up is a comfortable and easy experience.

"We are a fun and bubbly people," he said.

Michael Morgan, of Laurel, said that he "finds the inspiration and wisdom revealed by participating in Angela's book club to be contagious."

A couples book club meets at Belinda Young's Chosen Books and Gift Boutique on Main Street. Young invited her friend, Joy Briscoe, of Clinton, with her husband, the Rev. Vince Briscoe, to host the book club at Young's shop as part of her "Reading Road on Main" outreach to the Laurel community.

Partnering with Christian author Celeste Owens, and based on Owens' book, "The 40 Day Surrender Fast," the Couples Connector Group started on Facebook and began meeting face-to-face in January.

Joy Briscoe described the sessions as deep, intimate and based on scripture and reality. As "Vince N Joy Ministries," the Briscoes intend to lead more couples' book discussions, and she said they are currently planning a marriage conference.

Laurel resident Crystal Marable, author of a children's book, "Graceful Gabby Finds Love in Blue," started the Gracious Girlz book club, which met at the Maryland City at Russett Library last summer, for her daughter, Jasmine, 8.

Marable said the club's mission is to teach Christian family values and foster a "great little sisterhood" where the girls (ages 5-10) can also learn skills such as etiquette and healthy eating.


"The book club inspires girls to reach higher, to imagine, to learn, to be creative and to be kind to one another. And most importantly, to read," she said.

Jasmine Marable said "Dancing In The Wings," by Debbie Allen, was her favorite, and the book taught her to "never be afraid or give up even when it's hard and you don't fit in, and to always stay focused."

Gracious Girlz has a Facebook page and website and will resume meeting at the end of the school year.

Reading with friends

Other book clubs in Laurel are formed for more social pursuits. Five years or so ago, Amy Brennan, of West Laurel, joined a "loosey goosey" book club organized by moms whose kids had attended Bond Mill Elementary School.

Brennan, who is an attorney, said the members include a few scientists, a teacher, former military personnel and a stay-at-home mom, "bright women who enjoy reading in a relaxed format."

The club's current pick is a biography or autobiography of an exceptional woman.

Other books Brennan recalls reading are Yann Martel's "The Life of Pi," Jennifer Vanderbes' "Easter Island" and Christina Lamb's "I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban."

Liz Steenrod, who Brennan credits with organizing the club in 2009, said the first book the West Laurel group read was Khaled Hosseini's "The Kite Runner."

"Ours [the book club] is personal," Steenrod said. "We are forging and renewing friendships."

About 15 years ago, Kim Swartz, of Old Town, joined with coworkers from Digex in Beltsville to form a book club that would meet around Laurel.

She said she started the club because she was a voracious reader who longed to discuss what she was reading with others.

The club currently has 8-10 active readers and just finished "Orange is the New Black" by Piper Kerman on April 6.

Although the club is not registered, Swartz said library availability often influences the club's title selections.

About the time that Oprah was launching her book club in the mid-1990s, Laurel resident and teacher Virginia Mentall joined a reading group based in Columbia.

Marianna's Book Club, named after club founder Marianna Mahr, a Columbia resident, had members who shared a Dutch heritage and/or were married to employees at the Goddard Space Flight Center.

Mentall said she was invited to join the club at a party, and she credits the group with providing a venue for old friends to stay connected.

"A book club is like a snowball," she said, "It gathers people."

Retired now, Mentall said Marianna's is still going strong with about eight members; former members occasionally travel in from Boston, the Eastern Shore and Northern Virginia. She is hosting a meeting at her home in Montpelier this month.

"Laurel is a good, central meeting place," Mentall said.

Once a year, the club asks a professional speaker to moderate; this year, Mentall said former Laurel resident Karen Arnold has been hired to lead the discussion of "The Roundhouse" by Louise Erdrich.

Marianna's Book Club is registered with the Columbia branch of the Howard County Library System, where book clubs can ask for help in selecting titles and reserve copies.

In 2008, the Laurel Historical Society formed a book club focusing on Laurel's history and culture.

Executive Director Lindsey Baker said the club also read books such as NPR's "This I Believe," a collection of essays edited by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman based on the CBS Radio program hosted by Edward Murrow in the 1950s.

She said the club read One Maryland One Book picks, but dissolved "too soon," after just a couple of years.

Baker, Swartz, Brennan and Mentall all said their book clubs have inspired them to read literature they might never have considered on their own.


At the libraries

Alli Jessing, events and seminars manager with the Howard County Library System, said three book clubs are sponsored by the library's Savage branch based on Asian American literature, mystery and nonfiction. She said the mystery book club had been meeting for about 20 years, and the nonfiction for a decade.

"The average [attendance] is about 10 customers per book club meeting," Jessing said.

The Laurel library branch of the Prince George's County Memorial Library System also hosts a club, usually drawing 8-12 participants, according to Arlene Ogurick, head of the library's adult services.

The club's current pick is "The Cuckoo's Calling," by Robert Galbraith (a J. K. Rowling pseudonym), but Ogurick said participants also read nonfiction such as "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," as well as One Maryland One Book picks.

"In general, the Laurel library has a wonderful group of readers who are very diverse in their interests and read broadly in all genres," she said.