Men, Books, Food, and Drink

Vinalhaven’s men’s book club is a community institution.

By Phil Crossman
Photos by Sheri Romer-Day


In 2008, Vinalhaven native and lifelong fisherman Steve Rosen was chatting with Ellen Chandler, a seasonal resident of many years, who told him of her book discussion group in Garrison, N.Y. and how interesting and enjoyable it was. The group was called WOWEE (Women of the World Eating Everything).


Men's book club meeting on Vinalhaven.
The men’s book club that meets on Vinalhaven.


Ellen’s enthusiasm was infectious and Steve, an avid reader—and capable gourmand—had been toying with the idea of forming such a group himself and this was the impetus he needed.

WOWEE’s modus operandiwas to choose a book and meet to discuss it once a month and, importantly, to make that meeting a pot luck whose entrées had some relevance to what was being read.

Inspired, he contacted a handful of other islanders he felt were similarly inclined, and in 2009 a dozen men got together at The ARC, a local coffee shop, to talk about it. An agreement emerged to model ourselves after WOWEE, to choose a book and meet to discuss it once a month, to bring food and drink, the food evocative of that book and the drink, it should be noted, with no such requisite relevance.


Phil Crossman, left, shares a laugh with a fellow club member.
Phil Crossman, left, shares a laugh with a fellow club member.


The makeup of the group was and remains reflective of the 1,200 people who call this place home. Founder Steve, at 50, was, and until recently, remained the youngest bibliophile. I was a part of the group but, although my own mother was born here and my ancestors have called this place home since the 1700s, I, having arrived here when I was four, and worse, from Massachusetts, cannot lay claim to the same pedigree. Mike moved here in 1972 and carved out a very respectable niche for himself as a lobsterman, not an easy accomplishment. Equally unlikely, Mark moved here from, of all places, Kansas to become a skilled boat builder and sailor. Jackson, an artist from Cape Cod moved here in 1990 and has continued to produce beautiful things.

Wayne was a retired history buff who’d moved here in the 1980s and who’d written a biography of Claude McCay, a Jamaican author and poet who figured prominently in the Harlem Renaissance, and that book eventually became a group choice. Skip had come to the island a decade earlier to begin a new career after having summered here for many years. Karol moved here in 1981 and had since been the school’s very popular history teacher. Gary was a seasonal resident who was preparing to retire here full time.

The group has met faithfully each month since then and the founding prescription has been generally followed. As members come and go—and most who go have moved or passed on—their names are added to a roster and book choices are assigned sequentially so that each member may suggest a book once in any complete rotation and does so two months in advance of a given meeting.


Discussing the book.
Discussing the book.


Members are expected to have read the book, although there is no penalty for not having done so, and various of us bring appetizers, entrées, salads, and desserts that are expected, in one way or another, to bear some relationship to the book being discussed that night. Beverages need have no relevance and there are, not surprisingly, exceptions to protocol. We are, after all an eclectic bunch.

Gary, who passed on in 2015, brought homemade applesauce to every meeting for seven years and Bill has brought kale salad to every meeting since he joined not long after the group’s inception. These have generated no complaints; the applesauce was and the kale salad is very good and, when there is salad left over Bill graciously allows me to bring it home to Elaine who loves it. Regardless, we do consume excellent food and drink at each of these events, such that Steve’s wife Alice is understood to have lamented that every time Steve prepares something delicious he takes it to book group.

The meeting is held on the same day of each month and members begin assembling between 5:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. Over the years, the meetings have been in several locations, first at The ARC and then at Ted’s home for several years. Ted was a transplant whose presence here enriched the community in profound ways that many of us know nothing about. He was, as time went by, increasingly handicapped and couldn’t easily get out and around which is why we met at his place.

Those were memorable events because Ted was a gracious and engaging host, had always read the book, invariably had among the most interesting observations, and always presented a delicious and relevant entrée. When it was no longer possible for him to comfortably take part, we all struggled to maintain our group composure but we did, largely in his memory, and now meet at the Vinalhaven Eldercare facility to accommodate Roy, our eldest and, at 92, arguably our most well-read member.

Discussion about nothing in particular, although it sometimes involves the book, takes place for an hour or so and then dinner is enjoyed, after which the members settle down in the big living room to discuss the book in earnest.    These discussions are nearly always interesting, often revealing and equally often, funny. Jackson recently and rightfully complained that a book was a bad choice because it contained much, too much, unlikely erotica. He cited, by way of example, a scene in which, after many, too many, pages, an admiring lover who’d begun his exploration admiring a young woman’s hair, had only reached her neck.


The dinner is an important part of the gathering.
The dinner is an important part of the gathering.


Over the course of these nine years the group has read, if not always enjoyed, over a hundred books. Since 2010 we have hosted a Ladies Night in June to which we invite the members of their own book group, which started about the same time as ours. We also invite the author of a book we’ve particularly enjoyed during the previous year to be our guest of honor and to address the group and engage in conversation following dinner. Several of these have been authors with an island connection.

In 2013, having just read My Beloved World, we invited Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomeyerto be our guest. The justice penned a very gracious and apologetic handwritten response explaining that the date of the proposed June meeting coincided with a period when the court was not in session and she felt she should spend those precious moments with her family. In 2016, having read The Negotiator, the group invited its author, former Sen. George Mitchell, and he agreed to come, and to enjoy dinner with the two book groups, but asked for the opportunity to address not just us but the entire island community. The result was an enormously popular and inspiring talk to a full auditorium, so appreciated that a similar invitation was extended to address the community again the next year and he graciously came and again gave us, not only a fuller understanding of things worldly and political, but also hope.

Earlier this year, we enjoyed a beautifully written The News of the World by Paulette Jiles, David’s selection, and my own recommended reading, The Women in the Castleby Jessica Shattuck. We also read Michael Finkel’s The Stranger in the Woods, Bruce’s choice, about the so-called North Pond Hermit, Christopher Knight, who sustained himself by burglarizing seasonal cabins for the 28 uninterrupted years he lived alone and without shelter in the Maine woods.