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updated: 2/4/2012 11:40 AM

Big Read campaign gearing up at 10 libraries

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  • Paula McLain's second novel, "The Paris Wife," was selected by 10 area libraries as the subject of this year's The Big Read.

      Paula McLain's second novel, "The Paris Wife," was selected by 10 area libraries as the subject of this year's The Big Read.
    AP Photo/Random House

  • Paula McLain's tale of Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson, will be the subject of this year's The Big Read campaign in 10 area communities.

      Paula McLain's tale of Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson, will be the subject of this year's The Big Read campaign in 10 area communities.

  • "The Paris Wife" gives readers a look at Ernest Hemingway from the perspective of his first wife during their time together in 1920s Paris.

      "The Paris Wife" gives readers a look at Ernest Hemingway from the perspective of his first wife during their time together in 1920s Paris.
    AP Photo

  • Claudia Hommel performs music from "Paris in the Jazz Age" as part of The Big Read celebration at Lisle Library.

      Claudia Hommel performs music from "Paris in the Jazz Age" as part of The Big Read celebration at Lisle Library.

  • Annette Baldwin will portray legendary fashion designer Coco Chanel during a March appearance at the Lisle Library as part of The Big Read program.

      Annette Baldwin will portray legendary fashion designer Coco Chanel during a March appearance at the Lisle Library as part of The Big Read program.

  • Video: McLain on "The Paris Wife"

 
 

Debbie Wordinger could have picked a tougher task than serving as chairwoman for this year's The Big Read campaign.

Maybe something like bringing peace to the Middle East. Or herding cats. Or explaining Snooki.

But trust us on this, getting librarians from 10 public libraries to agree on a single book to celebrate for three months this winter and spring is no stroll in the park with birds singing and butterflies fluttering.

This is the eighth year the libraries have joined forces to offer The Big Read and the third time Wordinger, who heads adult services at the Indian Prairie Public Library, has found herself leading the organizing committee.

The group solicited nominees from all the participating libraries, sifted through the most popular choices and then settled on "The Paris Wife" by Paula McLain, an author from, of all places, Cleveland.

Set in 1920s Paris, the story is written in the voice of Hadley Richardson, the first of Ernest Hemingway's four wives, and sets out to capture the era and "a love affair fueled by ambition and betrayal."

Wordinger says organizers selected "Wife" because part of it takes place in Chicago, because it features an era (the Roaring '20s) and place (Paris) that haven't been featured before, and because it presents countless programming opportunities.

If all goes well, librarians at Clarendon Hills, Downers Grove, Hinsdale, Indian Prairie in Darien, LaGrange, LaGrange Park, Lisle, Thomas Ford in Western Springs, Westmont and Woodridge public libraries hope the book and associated programs will get people talking and perhaps serve to pull their communities a little closer together.

To prime the pump, Wordinger says the libraries already are offering copies of the book in every conceivable form, from big print to e-books and from CDs to paperbacks.

Beginning in March, they will play host to a variety of programs that play off the time period and Hemingway, including wine tastings, French cooking classes, concerts and historical programs, movies based on Hemingway books and seminars about the man and his time in Chicago.

McLain herself is scheduled to culminate the celebration with an appearance at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 3, at Ashton Place, 341 75th St., Willowbrook.

You can find information on the events at thebigread.org; at twitter.com/bigread2012 or by "liking" the event on Facebook. There's also a pretty slick pamphlet available at all the participating libraries.

Rhonda Snelson, Lisle Library's head of public relations and programming, says she couldn't be happier about the selection of both the author and the book.

"Oh my God," she says, "who wouldn't want to do programs about Paris in the 1920s with the Charleston and the clothes and all that drinking?"

Making the pick

At first glance, picking a book for The Big Read wouldn't seem like that big a deal. All you've got to do is find a book that's been published in the past year or so (and is out in paperback) that will have wide appeal, promote reading, spark discussion and lend itself to a variety of entertaining programs.

How hard can it be?

"Deciding on the book is always the biggest challenge," Wordinger says. "If you have three people discussing a book, there will always be one person who isn't that thrilled about it."

Add to the mix the need to create programs around the book that will attract a bunch of people with a bunch of different interests to a bunch of different activities, she says, "and the book has a heavy burden to carry."

Some selections go over better than others. Everybody says the first year's pick, Erik Larson's "The Devil in the White City," set an almost impossibly high standard. For one thing, Larson, like McLain, was more than willing to participate and turned out to be quite charming. For another, you just can't beat a story about a serial killer to set tongues wagging.

Organizers also point to the choice a couple years ago of Elizabeth Berg's "Dream When You're Feeling Blue" as a significant success story.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but not every selection has gone over quite so well.

Last year, for example, organizers picked Dave Eggers' "Zeitoun," which explored the plight of a family in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Not only was the topic a bit of a downer, but designing programs around it -- one library brought in cadaver-sniffing dogs -- proved a bit challenging.

Lisle's Snelson says "The Paris Wife" offers many more opportunities for a good time.

"It's a wonderful, fast read," she says. "It has local connections -- it actually begins in Chicago -- so there's local culture to tie into."

In Lisle alone, the library is planning an evening with actress Annette Baldwin portraying legendary fashion designer Coco Chanel; a concert called "Paris in the Jazz Age" featuring Claudia Hommel; and a mini-French lesson with Susan Boldrey, who says she needs only an hour to teach people any phrase they might want to learn for travel, food, or, you know, loooove.

"Compared to cadeaver-sniffing dogs," Snelson says laughing, "it's really a good time."

Not just for women

If you shine a bright light in their eyes and demand they spill the beans, just about anybody involved in a community reading program will admit they trend just a tad toward women. "The Paris Wife" likely isn't a whole lot different.

But while men may not reflexively flock to the book, Wordinger says organizers are hoping the Hemingway connection might change some of those perceptions. There will, for example, be several showings of Hemingway movies featuring stars such as Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster and Spencer Tracy. You don't get more manly than two guys named Ernest and Humphrey.

Whether "The Paris Wife" sparks the same kind of response as "Devil" remains to be seen, but Wordinger is hopeful.

"I can't say it's up there with people's political views, thank heavens, but people do get excited about what the book is," Wordinger says, even if she's never heard anyone discussing the latest Big Read selection in the frozen food aisle at Jewel. "They will start asking about next year's selection almost as soon as this year's programs end."

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