January 1, 2020 | By Margo Hammond
Museum Book Clubs. . .
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Love to read? Love to look at art? Seven local art venues — five museums, an artist collective and an exhibition space for visual and performing arts — all host ongoing reading clubs. All but one is open to the general public.
Each club has its own personality.
The Literary Salon at the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, open only to its Guild members, has been reading books by and about Dalí and the art world he inhabited since 2012. The Short Prose Club, which began meeting at the art collective Venus St. Pete in August, reads short stories rather than full-length books,
The James Museum book club in downtown St. Petersburg reads books set in the American West. The ABC Club at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art in Tarpon Springs reads books on 20th and 21st century art. The Kitchen Table Book Club at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum in St. Petersburg’s Midtown reads female black authors.
Throughout 2020 the Book Club @ The MFA on St. Petersburg’s Beach Drive will be reading books about the women’s suffrage movement. The Keep St. Pete Lit Book Club, which had been meeting at the MFA for the past four years, is moving in 2020 to The Studio @620. A home to visual and performing arts, The Studio is the latest space to mix literature with the art on its walls.
Here’s a rundown of the area’s seven reading clubs that meet in artful settings:
READING SHORT STORIES
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The newest is the Sunday Short Prose club, launched in August. The club meets at Venus St. Pete, an art space created by St. Pete Women’s Collective at 244 Dr. MLK Jr Street North in downtown St. Petersburg that includes a library, a gallery area, five artist studios, a kitchenette — and now an ongoing reading club.
This club has a unique twist: instead of reading full-length books, participants are asked to read a short story or two under 60 pages, always available for free online.
I dropped in on the club’s first meeting in August as a small group of avid readers met in the library to discuss George Saunders’ short story “Victory Lap.” The space has been dubbed the “Bluebird Book Bus” library after the bookstore on wheels founded in 2011 by Mitzi Gordon, now the board president of the St. Petersburg Women’s Collective.
After offering us coffee, tea and homemade baked goods (donations welcome), our host, Sorella Lark Anderson, invited us to introduce ourselves and state our pronoun preferences. A writer and mixed-media artist, Anderson is a recent graduate of Eckerd College. We were a mixture of ages, races, genders (several shes and a they). We then had a lively and thoughtful discussion about Saunders’ short story, ruminating on its theme, its structure and even its ambiguous title.
In September the Sunday Short Prose Club paired two short pieces primarily set in Florida: Lauren Groff’s “The Midnight Zone” and Sarah Gerard’s “BFF.” Other pairings have followed: Louise Erdrich’s “The Years of My Birth” and Karen Russell’s “Haunting Olivia,” Carmen Maria Machado’s “Eight Bites” and Neil Gaiman’s “Click Clack the Rattlebag.”
In December the group listened to a podcast of LeVar Burton reading Lesley Nneka Arimah’s “What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky” coupled with reading Ted Chiang’s “Hell is the Absence of God,” both with a science fiction theme.
On January 12 from 3:30-5:30 the group will discuss a longer piece, meeting for the sixth time to contemplate James Baldwin’s “Letter From a Region in My Mind.”
One advantage of reading short stories over full-length books: Everyone has time to read all the material, a rarity in most book clubs I’ve known.
READING ABOUT SUFFRAGETTES
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In 2020 the Book Club @ the MFA is partnering for the first time with Tombolo Books to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment which granted women in the U.S. the right to vote. The first selection is The Women’s Suffrage Movement, an anthology edited by Sally Roesch Wagner, author of Sisters in Spirit. with a foreword by Gloria Steinem. Organizers promise lively discussions centered on “topical issues and themes universal to all: empowerment, artistic and creative excellence and the push for equality for all.”
The club’s first meeting of the year — on January 9 — will be held in the museum’s Bayview Room, but “I’m hoping to utilize other spaces in the museum, including the garden in the spring and fall, and our pop-up theater in the Hough Gallery during our Art of the Stage exhibition from February through April,” says Margaret Murray, associate curator of public programs at the MFA, who will be leading the discussion (and picking the titles) in collaboration with Tombolo Books’ Alsace Walentine.
In February the group will read A Wild and Precious Life, a posthumous memoir by LGBTQ activist Edie Windsor, who passed away before her book was completed. Windsor’s fight for federal recognition of her marriage to Thea Speyer went all the way to the Supreme Court, and the resulting victory in 2013 felled one of the last remaining obstacles to marriage equality. Their 40 year romance and struggle for federal recognition of their marriage was the subject of the film Edie & Thea: A Very Long Engagement.
The club’s March title is Optic Nerve by Maria Gainza, a novel set in Buenos Aires exploring the spaces between others, art and the self.
The club, which meets on the second Thursday of every month from 6:30-7:30 p.m., is free for members and free with museum admission for all others. Thursdays are a good night to pick for non-members — entrance to the museum on that day is $10 after 5 p.m.
READING ALL OVER THE GLOBE
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The Studio@620 (Motto: The Answer is Always Yes) is the new site for the Keep St. Pete Lit Book Club, which has been meeting once a month at various locations around St. Petersburg since 2014. Many of its members have been coming since the beginning.
The club will launch its first meeting at this new venue on February 5 with The Yellow House, a National Book Award-winning memoir by Sarah M. Broom.
Keep St. Pete Lit, a community organization that promotes writing and reading, was founded by poet Maureen McDole, who will lead the discussions.
When the club met at the MFA, books needed to correspond to the museum’s exhibits, beginning in 2016 with A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit. Solnit appeared at the museum in conversation with artist Carrie Schneider whose Reading Women exhibit displayed photographs and films of 100 women reading a book by their favorite female author. In December, the last month the group met at the MFA, the club read Five Day Gone by Observer art critic Laura Cummings who tried to solve the mystery of her mother’s unexplained disappearance as a toddler by examining family photographs.
At The Studio@620, however, the club’s reading list will broaden. “We will be reading books from all over the globe both contemporary and the classics, including books of fiction, non-fiction, memoir and maybe even some poetry,” says McDole, who will be picking the titles in collaboration with her new partner. “We like to read books that represent all types of experiences and viewpoints.”
But there is one criteria McDole, who is president of Friends of the Mirror Lake Library, will insist on — the book has to be found in the library.
The club will meet the first Wednesday of every month from 6:30-7:30 p.m. There is a $5 cover charge to attend, money that will be split between Keep St. Pete Lit and The Studio@620.
READING FEMALE BLACK AUTHORS
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The Kitchen Table Book Club has also been poring over books since 2014. The club, which meets at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum in St. Petersburg’s Midtown, exclusively reads female black authors, voices that are often “left out of the literary canon” — or their work is only read “in university literature classes like African American Literature, which are usually electives,” says Sheree L. Greer. Greer is a female black author herself and founder of The Kitchen Table Literary Arts Center in Tampa, which sponsors the club.
Gathering around a round table set up in the museum’s largest hall — “so we can see and hear each other,” explains Greer — the club meets on the last Saturday of each month from January through June. Each year the six months of meetings are divided into two 3-month series that explore specific themes. The first series emphasized the theme of Heritage, covering books by Ann Petry, Zora Neale Hurston, and Nella Larsen.
In 2019 the club chose Pride and Justice as themes, reading books with LGBTQ+ characters and/or authors for the former (Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson and LaShonda Katrice Bernett’s Jam on the Vine) and crime-based mysteries for the latter (Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory, set in a prison in Zimbabwe; Rachel Howzell’s Skies of Ashes, part of a mystery series set in L.A. starring African American detective Elouise Norton; and Bluebird, Bluebird, a thriller by Attica Locke, the producer of the TV show Empire).
The Kitchen Table Literary Center’s outreach director Tiffiany “Slam” Anderson, a writer and spoken word artist, leads the discussions with prepared questions, addressing the book’s themes and plot but also literary concepts such as narrative voice, setting and characterization. Anderson chooses the themes and titles but takes recommendations and feedback from club members. Not all the series have been popular. “We did a fantasy series that didn’t go over that well,” says Greer. “While the readers were open to trying something new in terms of expanding beyond realistic or historical fiction, one of the titles just really missed the mark for the group and they weren’t shy about sharing their thoughts!”
For the first three months of 2020, the club will be discussing three works by Zora Neale Hurston in a For the Love of Florida series: Seraph on the Suwanee, Their Eyes Were Watching God and Dust Tracks on a Road.
In April, May and June, the Florida theme will continue with three novels by authors with Florida connections: The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard, My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due and A Return to Arms. The latter novel is by Greer.
The club is open to the public, but registration is needed and there is a nominal fee that covers food and refreshments for each meeting. The VIP registration, which costs a bit more, includes a copy of each book in the three-month series.
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The James Museum book club, launched five months after the museum opened in downtown St. Petersburg in 2018, reflects the eclectic collection of cowboy, Native American and wildlife art on display. The club’s menu of titles has run the gamut of genres, from mysteries to memoirs, from histories to classic fiction, beginning with Michael Crichton’s Dragon Teeth, a novel about two 19th century paleontologists — but the settings are always the American West, from Alaska to Texas.
The group has read stories by Native Americans (Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diet of a Part-Time Indian and Linda Hogan’s Power), by historians (Rinker Buck’s The Oregon Train and David Trekker’s The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present) and by a woman rancher (Elinore Pruitt Stewart’s Letters of a Woman Homesteader). There have been stories of wildlife (Nevada Barr’s Track of the Cat and Dan Flores’ American Serengeti) and stories of men in the Wild West (Landon Y. Jones’ The Essential Lewis and Clark).
During the museum’s special exhibition of Edward Curtis’ photographs of Native American tribes, the group read Timothy Egan’s Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis.
The discussions are led by Helen Huntley, a docent at the museum, who provides a short PowerPoint presentation at each meeting that puts the book in geographic and historical context.
On January 16 the group will discuss Hearts of the Missing by Carol Potenza, a mystery set among the Pueblo people of New Mexico to coincide with the museum’s latest special exhibit: the copper plate etchings of Santa Clara Pueblo artist Helen Hardin.
READING ABOUT ART
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The ABC book club at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art in Tarpon Springs — which stands for Arts, Books and Community — concentrates on books that further readers’ knowledge of 20th and 21st century art, the focus of the museum itself.
Meeting every other month, participants are encouraged to bring their lunch to the sessions which are held from 11:30 to 1 p.m. The museum provides refreshments. Led by Palm Harbor Library Director Gene Coppola, the discussions are free with admission to the museum.
In November the group read Diane Airbus: A Biography by Patricia Bosworth. In January, the club will be reading Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman.
THE DALI AND THE WRITTEN WORD
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Dalí Mustache by Don Gialanella
The Dalí Museum’s book club — there it’s called a Literary Salon — was launched in 2012, making it the oldest museum book club in the county. Held twice a year in the Dalí boardroom overlooking St. Petersburg’s harbor (surely the prettiest setting for a museum book club), participants have read books by Dalí, on Dalí and on the art world he inhabited, from Dalí’s own 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship to Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Forger, a memoir by Madeira Beach resident Ken Perenyi.
Unlike the other museum book clubs, however, the Dalí Literary Salon is not open to the public. Created by Dalí Guild member Peggy Silvergleid (with the participation of Peter Tush, head of Dalí’s education department, and yours truly), the salon is only open to members of the The Guild at The Dalí and their guests.
The public, however, is not left out of several upcoming Dalí events that celebrate the written word. All are welcome.
January 9: Poetry at the Dalí. An ongoing series held from 6-7:30 p.m. on the second Thursday of each month through May 2020. Usually hosted by St. Petersburg Poet Laureate Helen Wallace, January’s special edition will feature the advertising genius Jeff Goodby (creator of the iconic “Got Milk?” campaign) and Dalí Museum Director Hank Hine reading from their new book, Thirty Days Two Writers, which chronicles a month-long, coast-to-coast poetry writing exchange between the two.
January 30: The Hilarious, Mysterious and Provocative Surrealist Literary Game Night from 6-8 p.m. With the help of Keep St. Pete Lit, the evening will offer collaborative games using art, poetry and literature to explore the unconscious.
February 5: Coffee with a Curator. An ongoing series that frequently touches on literary topics. In February, Dalí librarian Shaina Harkness will present Revolution Between the Covers, a lecture on the Surrealist Journals on display in the museum’s current exhibit Midnight in Paris 1929.