Variations on the Theme

Here’s why I love a thematic approach to book groups: one of my groups met last night. The topic was immortality and rejuvenation. We’re a science fiction and fantasy group, but my readers are a perversely quirky bunch with strong penchants for picking the surprising book and following the conversation wherever it may go.

Bud, our best historian of the genre, got us started with an overview of the theme of immortality. He and Jim immediately got into an interesting debate about whether living forever would be boring or fascinating, lonely or fulfilling.

Down and Out in the Magic KingdomMy job, when I choose to accept it, is to keep the meetings moving, so I opened with Cory Doctorow’s delightful Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, a quick reading bit of science fiction with admittedly thin characters, a mystery that is fairly easy to solve, but so many fun speculations about the future that it will make your head dance.

Bob sang the praises of Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s St. Germain Night Bloomingseries, which follows a regal vampire across many historical periods. The books can be read in any order. In Bob’s mind (and mine) this is the vampire series that should have found mobs of fans instead of Anne Rice’s work.

Dan had Arthur C. Clarke’s Against the Fall of Night, the work which the author later expanded into The City and the Stars, a strong early example of why we should mourn Clarke’s passing.

Jim also took us back to a golden age writer, reviewing the first of Robert Heinlein’s Lazarus Long books, Methuselah’s Children, in which the author explores his trademark issues of family structure and libertarianism while as usual tweaking his nose at society’s conventions.

ElantrisA turn to fantasy was next, as Andrea had Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris, which explores, among other ideas, an immortality in which one can’t really die but constantly feels the cumulative pain of every injury ever sustained (and as a result is eventually driven to eternal insanity or catatonia.)

Randall brought in The Skinner, by Neal Asher, a fast-paced race through an aquatic planet where the evolution of sea creatures has proceeded quickly and the survivors (including some pulpy pirate captains) have been toughened beyond all proportion by their kill-or-be-killed world.

Carolyn, who loves Victorian era horror was pleased at the chance to bring in her beloved Dracula, which led to a rousing side debate on whether the Winona Ryder/Gary Oldman adaptation of the work is faithful to its source (and the trouble one is probably in when a movie includes the adapted writer’s name in its title.)

Mary took us for an even more literary turn when she pulled Orlandoout Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, which led into another film conversation, this one more positive, about the divine nature of Tilda Swinton.

Gary also stayed in the past with H. Rider Haggard’s classic African adventure, She. Along the way we had a birthday celebration, introductions of new members, confessions of regulars who hadn’t finished a book, Dan’s monthly round of themed punning, and spirited diversions on topics including copyright, the beading and knitting projects that members were working on, Hellboy 2, and spray-can pancake batter. Our quick trip through fantasy, science fiction, and classic literature on immortals left everyone with more books on their list of things to read and an appetite for our usual post-meeting Mexican dinner.

Thematic groups are a great way to balance the diverse tastes, social needs, busy schedules, and curious natures of book lovers.



About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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