"YOU and me, let's do a book club," Matthew Cooke, editor and producer of the Oscar-nominated documentary "Deliver Us From Evil," remembered saying repeatedly, to various friends. "It's something I've talked about for probably the past five years." He shrugged. "But then we never had a book club. Finally, we do."
For the last three months, Cooke and seven others have been gathering weekly at the Los Feliz home of actor Adrian Grenier and musician and graphic designer Clark Stiles to discuss books over dinner. Friends who share a sprawling, Spanish-style house, Grenier and Stiles were already known for their unusual dinner parties, at which the conversation would be structured around a single theme such as infidelity or quantum physics. The book club, Stiles said, evolved out of this, and apparently even infidelity is no match for Jonathan Safran Foer when it comes to sparking heated debate.
The club's first book, Don DeLillo's novel "White Noise," was universally adored. "Oh, my God, the best book I've ever read!" raved Roxanne Daner, Stiles' partner in the graphic design firm Ludlow Kingsley.
Foer's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," on the other hand, divided the group with "gimmicky" devices like having "seven pages in a row with one word," as Stiles described it. Daner defended the approach from a graphic design standpoint, and Grenier responded by ripping a page straight out of the book, asking, "Why isn't this as good as what he's doing? Why even have the page?"
At that point, "Roxanne almost cried," chimed in Melissa Keller, an actress and photographer who met Grenier when she had a small part on "Entourage," "and I was like, yeah! Punk rock!"
Well, what's better than a book that inspires action? The same passion that fueled Grenier's dramatic page ripping led the group to decide, after reading Jeffrey Sachs' "The End of Poverty" last month on the advice of Cooke's mom, that they couldn't just close the book and move on. And so was born the idea of the "fundrager": a $100-a-head charitable house party
Sachs' nonfiction bestseller (featuring a foreword by Bono) presents a plan to eradicate extreme poverty by 2025. "It kind of put us all on the spot on a philosophical level," Stiles recalled. "It wasn't like you talk about your opinion of the story and how it relates to your life. It was very real. We were all very humbled."
"We ended up talking about our motivations for everything we do," added Charles Dahlgren, another club member. "And it just leads to this do-good feeling: Life is short, there's all these people dying, and we're just, like, chilling with our goat cheese. We should do something!"
Like many who feel an urgent desire to help but also feel powerless in the face of global crises, they wanted to "find a way to intervene that is not about changing socio- and governmental systems," said Sarah Beadle, a conceptual artist who publishes a journal, Diksas, about the intersection of art and text.
One key prescription in "The End of Poverty" is helping people in poor nations reach the first rung of economic development, and one of the most effective ways this is accomplished is through micro-loans to entrepreneurs. The book club did a bit of online research and found the San Francisco-based organization Kiva, which collects and distributes micro-loans (www.kiva.org). All proceeds from their confab would go to Kiva.
"I really believe in the individual's ability to make a difference," said Grenier, who is often asked to lend his celebrity to charity events but shies away from those associated with name brands. "They use the charity as a way to get exposure. I like to participate in things that are small and grass-roots."
The fundrager was DIY. Catering duties were handled by Beadle and Keller -- "with a little help from Trader Joe's," Keller admitted, noting, "We tried to go as organic as we possibly could."
"This looks amazing!" Grenier said, surveying the platters of shrimp cocktail, cheese and pate, and asparagus wrapped with goat cheese and prosciutto. There was a full open bar on the back patio, and "Soy Cuba," a revolutionary propaganda film from 1964, was silently projected on the face of the garage. "Bud girls" in matching mini-dresses carrying buckets of beer strolled about, thanks to a call Grenier made to Budweiser.
By 9:30 guests were arriving in a steady stream. Book club members each had a scheduled shift at the door, instructing new arrivals to make their check out to Kiva and to write their name and donation amount on a list if they wanted a tax deduction. According to Keller, even people who couldn't attend the party had contacted them with offers to donate money. "The turnout is insane!" she exclaimed.