Books & Bars lives up to both parts of its name, a reading club that gathers monthly to share views and brews.
So," moderator Jeff Kamin began, holding up a copy of "Theft," a novel by Peter Carey, "what'd you guys think of this?"Su-ucked" came a quick, raspy response from Jennifer Nelson, perched near the front of the comfortably crowded theater.
The next 75 minutes had a similar tone, but decidedly less succinct assessments, including analogies to William Faulkner, a deconstruction of "the most obscure fart joke ever on page 63" and an ardent debate over whether either of the main characters was likable, or at least plausible. The final word: "They were both hicks who stormed the palace, which makes them believable," said Keith Kokoska. "She came from the same dirthole he did, and that's all you need for love."And that," Kamin responded, "is coming from a guy from Jersey."
Just a typical evening, by all accounts, for Books & Bars, perhaps the largest and almost certainly the loosest book club in the Twin Cities. On the second Tuesday of every month, 60 to 100 book (and beer) lovers gather in Bryant-Lake Bowl's theater for a seamless blend of critiquing and quaffing, serious discussion and not-so-serious imbibing.
"Every once in a while, you might have a Slurry McBookreader," Kamin said before the event, "but nothing more than that."
The combination works well for Jennie and Eli Houghton, who just moved to Minneapolis from California. "We're beer lovers, but we both love to read," said Jennie, one of about 20 first-timers at last week's get-together. "I would be here without the beer, but it's kind of an interesting social thing because I think having a beer or two makes people open up a lot."
Along with the newbies, Books & Bars boasts a corps of veterans, many of whom have earned monikers over the group's 3½ years:
Kokoska has been dubbed "The Hater," ostensibly because he dislikes so many of the books. He claims the nickname is ironic, "because I'm a lover, not a hater ... and the book I hated the most was the one I picked."
"The Teachers," five women from all over town (Rogers, Maplewood, New Hope and Minneapolis). No irony here, as they are instructors by profession, but on this night they also assumed Kokoska's nominal mantle. Nelson got in that early shot, and gal pal Megan Burgess shared her enmity at the subsequent social hour. "I've been coming for three years, and this was the only time I've come without finishing the book. But I hated it," she said. "I got halfway through and said 'I can't do it, I can't do it.' I didn't like any of the characters. And my sister's not here because there wasn't enough sex in the book."
Chris Bezek, aka "Text" due to what he calls his "semiphotographic memory," including his unearthing of the aforementioned obscure flatulence reference ("that was the only page I dog-eared"). Said Kamin: "Someone will be talking about a passage, and 'Text' will just snap his fingers and say 'page 93, right-hand side.'"
Still, the sessions, for which most of the crowd is age 25 to 40, revolve around master of ceremonies Kamin, 36, who selects most of the books and prepares by reading reviews and author profiles. His experience on the L.A. comedy-improv scene serves Kamin well as he "works" the room, a spry and engaging presence. At last week's gathering, he deftly ensured that all facets of the book were covered, worked in an extremely bawdy joke and laid down a crowd-pleasing Australian-slang riff.
Kamin has been known to lead the group in a "John Hughes slow clap" when someone utters something tedious such as "As an English major. ... " or "the second time I read this book. ... " When the evening's deliberations centered on a Chuck Klosterman book that included a passage on Dave Pirner, who happened to be on-site bowling at the time, Kamin got the Soul Asylum singer to duck into the session and wave to the crowd.
A deft touch
Kamin's greatest contribution, in fact, might be in keeping the tone both light and erudite. With opinions that can run a lot stronger than the beer, the dialogue has been known to become rather zealous.