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'Read It and Eat' offers some food for thought

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We read alone. But many readers love to talk about their reading with other readers.

Which helps explain the popularity of reading groups or book clubs that choose a book, then get together to discuss it.

Oprah Winfrey does it on TV. And by one estimate, nearly 10 million Americans belong to reading groups that meet in homes, libraries and bookstores.

Three years ago, Sarah Gardner started The Literary Gathering, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to two of her passions: books and food. Now she has written Read It and Eat: A Month-by-Month Guide to Scintillating Book Club Selections and Mouthwatering Menus.

For example, one of her "not-so-lazy summer reads" for August is Harper Lee's classic To Kill a Mockingbird, accompanied by a recipe for Miss Maudie's Famous Lane Cake, which is mentioned in the novel. The filling includes coconut, pecans, candied cherries, raisins and bourbon.

The book is more bittersweet.

Gardner recommends 64 books -- from Jane Austen's Emma to Nicholas Evans' The Horse Whisperer -- enough to keep a reading group busy for years.

But the book will be more useful to groups that are just starting rather than established ones that are looking for lesser-known books. (I was delighted, however, to see one of my favorite road/food books included, Pascale Le Draoulec's American Pie: Slices of Life (and Pie) from America's Back Roads.)

Gardner's recipes are more appetizing than many of her discussion questions. For To Kill a Mockingbird, she asks, "How does the book fit the Pulitzer Prize criteria of being a distinguished piece of fiction by an American author, dealing with American life?" That's more like a high school essay topic than the start of a robust discussion.

In an introduction, Gardner describes her troubles as a literature major in college: "I simply wasn't 'serious' enough for the pretentious and ever-ponderous academic crowd that filled my classes. ... When we were reading Jane Eyre, I wanted to discuss what Oprah would say about Jane's love affair with a married man who kept his crazy wife locked in a basement. (They didn't think that was a very dignified approach.)" They also might have noted that mad Bertha was banished to the attic.

The beauty of informal reading groups is that they need not be dignified or pretentious. No tests, no grades. And then there are the refreshments.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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