We’re Not Animals, Are We? {Book Club}

we're not animals

Twenty-three years ago this week my mom and her friend Susan started a monthly book group that met in Mom’s living room. A local book store offered a seminar on “how to start a book club,” helping them with basics to get started and the rest, as they say, is history. Two original members have been a part of the group all twenty-three years and gather with the current members the first Tuesday of every month. Over the years, I looked forward to the meetings when I was in the US and could discuss books with them in person.

Doing the math, we have cancelled twice in twenty-three years (once for weather, and once for the death of my dad), and a couple of books were spread out over two months because of length (I’m looking at you unabridged Les Mis and Anna Karenina!) . . .  at a book a month, “we” have read 275 books. What?!

If each book’s spine was an inch, that is roughly 23 feet of books or 7.01 meters of books or 4.18 Amys of books. That’s a lot of books. That is also the power of doing something small faithfully for the long haul.

Were it not for that book group, this Book Club would not exist. Our Book Club was born because I savored the little tastes of reading books in community and wanted a similar experience on the field. When Danielle, Patty, and I were brainstorming the components of Velvet Ashes and what we hoped Velvet Ashes’ rhythms would look like, without hesitation I said, “We need to have a book club! And I will gladly lead it because I know I am not the only one who wants to read and discuss books!!!!!” (I’m sure I waved my hands and used four verbal exclamation points. Though Britt-Marie would find this behavior uncivilized, I could not help myself.)

We started this Book Club because everything I tried on the field to find a place to discuss books failed. Following a teammate around her apartment as she cleaned while I summarized a book I read and must discuss right now and asked her what she thought about it based on my summary? Unsatisfactory. I joined two online book clubs. Both left me feeling like I was still reading alone and one fizzled out after a month. Unsatisfactory. Very Unsatisfactory. Are we at war? Is this how people behave? Britt-Marie, I feel ya!

Keep in mind, the idea of a virtual community like this was still foreign and untested. Imagine a world before weekly themes, Connection Groups, or our annual Retreat had become normal. I knew that a virtual book club had to function differently than an in-person one, namely because we cannot see each other. (Duh, I’m sorry to state something so obvious Britt-Marie; I can hear you exhaling with great patience.) From the beginning the tone of the Book Club posts have been different than the other posts. I picture you in my mind and then I type what I would say. I pretend we are talking and ignore that this is written and we are miles apart. We are here together, you and me and the others. Sarah and Rachel do the same.

I wanted this to be for all readers, not just fast readers. In my family, we have a range of reading speeds and because cultural messages are often “faster is better,” it’s tempting to think that faster readers are “better.” (Whatever a “better” reader is!) So, I was committed to consistent weekly posts. No matter if you did not have the time to read a book or were traveling or your internet was not working, you would know that we would still be here reading books when you were able to join. Over the years, what I have loved most about the weekly posts is that it provides time and space to notice and discuss themes. While I still wish we could meet in person, once-a-month-discussions also have limitations that I did not know about before we began reading together.

For our own celebration of history, I looked back at the post on November 18th, 2013 announcing our first book. Guess how many comments there were? Forty-one. We readers (and wannabe readers) found each other! Two weeks later when we started discussing our first book there were twenty-six comments. Since then we have read short stories, fiction, classics, nonfiction, a children’s book, and young adult novels. We have had author interviews and interactions and we have established annual reading rhythms. Two years ago we read A Man Called Ove in August and liked it so much we deemed August unofficial Fredrik Backman month. Last year we read My Grandmother Said to Tell You She’s Sorry.

Today, we begin our 53rd book: Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman. What struck me in these first nine chapters is what a strong voice Britt-Marie has. She sounds like herself. Which is especially impressive given that this book is translated into English. A shout-out to great translation work!

I see parallels between Britt-Marie and many of us. Here she is, age 63, and life took a left turn she did not want it to take. She is having to navigate Post-Kent Territory and needs to find new guides since her main choice (Kent) is no longer an option. Between visas, health, schooling, organizational changes, finances, family needs, or a poor fit, we cross-cultural workers are familiar with life taking turns or moving a pace that leaves us feeling at a loss.

Every time Britt-Marie calls the woman at the employment agency asking for help, I chuckle. How often, out of desperation or a lack of options, have I asked for someone’s help who did not really want to help me? But out of graciousness have. On the flip side, I loved when Somebody (will we learn her name?) laughed when Britt-Marie said the coffee machine was “Hit by a flying stone.” Kent was the “funny one,” not Britt-Marie. I am curious what other areas of her life Britt-Marie will begin to see herself in a different light.

In Ove we had a cat, in Grandmother a dog, how fitting that clean Britt-Marie befriends a rat. I have tidbits of information to share about rats, but this is running long and I’m eager to read the next eight chapters.

Until next week friends,


Our reading schedule:

August 13: Chapters 10-18

August 20: Chapters 19-26

August 27: Chapters 27-38

Photo by BBH Singapore on Unsplash


  1. Grace L August 6, 2019

    I love that VA has this Book Club. Often I do not have the time to read the book so I am not a very active participant. That being said, the VA Book Club has opened the door for me to some very good books. I almost always read the posts and the comments even if I am not reading the book that month. Perhaps one of these days I will have more leisure time and can join in with more of the reading. Thank you, Amy, for initiating the Book Club at Velvet Ashes.

    1. Amy Young August 6, 2019

      Grace, I’m always delighted to see your name :). Here’s what I’ve learned from my in-person book club, “active” is a wide door. Often, I get as much from just seeing someone in the room as I do from anything “profound” she says. Comments like yours remind us that we are not alone :). And I’m glad it’s helped you to find some good books for you to read. Yay! If you have time, Britt-Marie is a delightful read :).

  2. Lisa August 6, 2019

    This is great!!
    We return to the field next week and one of my questions will be: “Is there a book club I can join? Or is anyone willing to form a book club with me?
    Is there a schedule of the books VA will be reading this semester? I always mean to get more involved but then don’t find out about the books until the first or second post.

    1. Amy Young August 6, 2019

      Lisa!! You’ve found your reading home :)! If you look on the Book Club page (see near the top of the website) you will see all of the past books we’ve read. Sarah, what’s coming up for the fall?

      Even if you just found out about this book, it’s not too intense of a read, can you get a digital copy from your library? It’s a fun one to read!!

    2. Sarah Hilkemann August 7, 2019

      Hi Lisa! We’ve been working on a few last minute details but we do have our books for the fall scheduled! In September we will be reading a memoir called “Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah. Starting next week, we will have a little preview at the bottom of the Book Club posts so you can check it out.

      Then in October and November we’ll read “Glorious Weakness: Discovering God In All We Lack” by Alia Joy. It is part memoir, part encouragement for all of us to look at our lives and how the Father is working.

      You can check them out by heading to the Book Club page on the Velvet Ashes website. 🙂

      1. Amy Young August 8, 2019

        Born a Crime is so good!! (also bizarrely disorienting to realize it is true; also heartbreaking to see some of the dysfunctional — okay, I’m soft pedaling abuse—in his family). Yay! I love this book :). I found it at a “give away” neighborhood small library and took it for my mom to read!

        1. Phyllis August 10, 2019

          I just recently read Born a Crime, because of you, Amy, if I remember correctly. Did you mention it in a blog post? I wanted a book about South Africa, so I checked it out. I can’t say that I loved it (too much swearing and “gritty” stuff!), but it did help me to get a glimpse of a part of the world I don’t know much about.

          I’m loving Britt-Marie. Backman really has a gift for showing human loneliness and sadness so that I feel it with his characters. But then there’s humor and hope to shine through and around it.

          1. Amy Young August 10, 2019

            Hi Phyllis, I bet I did — on my blog? I read it last year and listed it as one of my top ten books of 2018


            But it is rather “gritty!”

            Like you, I appreciate the complexities of Britt-Marie . . . the messy middle as I like to say 🙂

  3. Sarah Hilkemann August 7, 2019

    I recently read “Beartown” by Fredrik Backman for my in-person book club, and it was very heavy. I wasn’t expecting Britt-Marie to make me laugh and smile and just be thoroughly enjoyable!

    Britt-Marie really annoyed me at first, to be honest. I think I sided with the employment agency girl but she was actually incredibly patient and helped Britt-Marie so much! I love the interesting characters in Borg and can’t wait to see how they develop over the course of the book.

    1. Amy Young August 8, 2019

      I listened to Bear Town a couple of years ago and was caught off guard by its heavy tone and topic. I wasn’t sure if it was as heavy as I thought because audio experience can be different than eye reading, but your comment helps me know it probably wasn’t me, it was indeed a heavier book. Britt-Marie would be quite a handful, wouldn’t she? As Rachel said, knowing some of her backstory helps me have compassion and patience . . . if only we could build that into our interacting with each other!

      1. Amy Young August 8, 2019

        oops! As Bayta said 🙂

  4. Rachel Kahindi August 7, 2019

    Are we at war?? Oh, Britt-Marie. I didn’t like her at first in “My Grandmother…”, but I developed a lot of sympathy for her. Now, I love her voice, her passive-aggression, and her underhanded compliments. I’m laughing a lot, but also really feeling for her, after hearing so much more about how she became the way she is.

    The contract with the rat surprised me. Can’t wait to see what other surprises she has in store.

    1. Amy Young August 8, 2019

      Rachel, I was the same! In “My Grandmother” I did not like her, but as the story unfolded and I realized her mom thought the wrong daughter died (how AWFUL) and then Alf and Kent “fought” over her (but did they really want her? Or did each just want to win? Actually, if I recall, Alf really did love her, but Kent seemed mostly taken with “winning.”) I find myself laughing in this book more than I expected to :)!

  5. Bayta Schwarz August 8, 2019

    Fredrik Backman just has such a knack for making the characters human… Mostly they’re not likeable and I would probably try and steer clear of them in real life (just being real 😉 ). But he shows just enough of their back story, of what has shaped them, to instill compassion rather than judgment. Wouldn’t it be great if we were able to see below the surface of some of the people we encounter and who really annoy us? Can’t wait to see how the story unfolds!

    1. Amy Young August 8, 2019

      I agree Bayta! His ability to make people “real” is uncanny!! And I’d be steering clear with you :)!

    2. Amanda August 10, 2019

      I was going to write the same thing Bayta! He is so good at writing really dreadful characters and then giving us this backstory that leaves us feeling “Gosh! No wonder they keep acting that way!” I really wonder how many dreadfully obnoxious people I’ve met have this story which has moulded them to be the person they are now. It reminds me that the person I’m judging now is so much more than what I see right in front of me.

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