Northwest Woman

Book Clubs: Words, Wine and a Whole Lot of Fun

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Joining a book club has become the in thing to do. Senior staff writer Paul Anthony Arco caught up with members from three local clubs who share insight as to what makes these groups so much fun.

Members of the Eatta Gabba Libro book club share a toast.

We don’t need Oprah Winfrey to tell us just how popular book clubs are these days; it seems groups are popping up everywhere. Most clubs are made up of women – neighbors or co-workers – who gather once a month, usually at a member’s home, or maybe at a restaurant or coffee shop.

The best part about book clubs is that no two are alike. Some have rules about what they read, such as works by female authors or non-fiction; others don’t. And whether it’s Fifty Shades of Grey or a Judy Blume title, the book isn’t always the main priority. Once a book discussion is done, members often catch up on each others’ lives over a glass of wine. Some clubs take the bonding experience even further, by dining, attending movies, or vacationing together, their activities all related to books they’ve read.

Some clubs invite their favorite authors to attend the monthly gabfests. Best-selling author and Rockford native Erica Spindler has accepted several invitations from clubs who’ve read her page-turning murder mysteries. “I love book groups,” says Spindler, who also joins in by speakerphone on occasion. “Clubs are a great way for my books to be introduced to new readers.”

Recently, Northwest Quarterly Magazine sat down with members from three local book clubs to get a better read on what makes their pastime so appealing.

Second Thursday Book Club

Kate Anderson and her family had just moved back to Caledonia, Ill., from Portland, Ore., to be closer to grandparents. She joined the book club her mother, Peggy Otis, belonged to, as a way to connect with people.

“I didn’t have any friends here, so these women immediately became my best friends,” says Anderson, a mother of four who owns a home-based scrapbooking business. “What I liked most was the fact that there were 70-year-olds in the group and I was still having children. They were so encouraging and gave me a different perspective on parenting. They’re wonderful.”

The Second Thursday Book Club now meets on the second Wednesday of the month, but members opted not to change the name. It was started by neighbors, mostly seniors and empty nesters. Today, its 12 female members range in age from 40 to 80.

Club members select the books at the January meeting. In turn, each member recommends two possible titles for consideration, and group votes determine which one to read. This also determines each meeting location; when a person’s book comes up for discussion, she’s the hostess for that month. “We were going month to month, and it was always a scramble,” Anderson says. “Now we’re reading better quality books.”

Their choices range from classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, Persuasion and The Count of Monte Cristo, to biographies on Steven Jobs, Abraham Lincoln, Ted Kennedy and Winston Churchill. They’ve read about the cultures of India, Japan and Afghanistan, and the Civil, Revolutionary, Vietnam, and Gulf wars. They’ve even read the Twilight series.

When member Helen Milikin selected The Circus Kings by Henry Ringling North – the story of Ringling Bros. & Barnum Bailey Circus – she played a portion of the movie The Greatest Show on Earth, starring Charlton Heston, at the monthly meeting. She passed around photos and a book she’d purchased after visiting the Al. Ringling Theate in Baraboo, Wis., and even decorated her kitchen with balloons. For snacks, she served orange candy and circus peanuts.

At Anderson’s urging, the club read 21: Bringing Down the House, a true story about an MIT professor who taught a group of students a numbers system for gambling in Las Vegas; the group gambled on weekends and split the profits until they were caught. For that meeting, Anderson set up a table for members to play blackjack and husband Rob, wearing a visor, dealt the cards.

Anderson practiced counting cards with her husband before springing the idea on the club. “When the group got to the house, I said, ‘OK ladies, this is a going to be a different kind of book club. Get your wine, and we’re going to learn how to count cards.’ It was so much fun. We roared the entire night.”

Not that the group is always on the same page when it comes to making a selection. “It’s great when someone speaks up,” Anderson says. “If we all agree on a book, no one learns and no one grows.”

Anderson calls the Second Thursday Club her own support group. “I love these ladies,” she says. “It’s a beautiful blend of friends. When my son was sick, for example, they were so sweet and supportive. They’re better than any therapist.”

Eatta Gabba Libro Book Club

As an elementary school teacher in the Belvidere School District, Deanna Thunberg knows the importance of reading. That’s why, three years ago, she and friend Sarah Mariani started a club they dubbed Eatta Gabba Libro, which means Eat, Gab, Book.

“Any good teacher is a reader,” says Thunberg, who teaches second grade. “You can’t promote the love of reading if you don’t read yourself. I talk about my book club with my students. I want them to know I’m a reader.”

The Eatta Gabba Libro Club has nine members, mostly education professionals. Members gather on Sunday nights to tackle a variety of topics – biographies, historical fiction and social impact. They search for deep, meaningful titles that elicit plenty of discussion. Each member arrives armed with a wish list and the group reaches a consensus as to what will be read next.

This club has read Drive, a story about motivation and productivity in the workplace. The Red Tent is a first-person narrative that tells the story of Dinah, a minor character in the Bible, the daughter of Jacob and sister of Joseph, and the tent in which women of Jacob’s tribe took refuge while menstruating or giving birth, surrounded by their mothers, sisters and aunts. Left Neglected is a book about a woman who endures a brain injury as a result of a horrific automobile accident. The Shack and The Room also left strong impressions on club members.

“I like books you can learn from and that can personally affect you,” says Thunberg. “The Room stuck with me for a long time. It’s about a woman who was kidnapped at a young age and had a child with her abductor. The child was kept in a room his entire life. What impacted me was how they reacted once they got out into the real world and how she cared for him. It was a book that I couldn’t easily shake.”

Occasionally, the club uses props to initiate further conversation. During a discussion of Unbroken, about Olympic athlete and prisoner of war survivor Louis Zamperini, Thunberg brought photos, flight records and other memorabilia that belonged to her father-in-law, a WW II veteran. Mariani brought art supplies during the reading of Michelangelo, while another member brought a quilt for the discussion of Things I Want My Daughters to Know.

Eatta Gabba Libro members have fun wherever they go. They’ve gone to the theater to see The Help and My Sister’s Keeper. They’ve gathered around a backyard fire pit, and Thunberg usually hosts a couple of pool outings at her Belvidere home; she occasionally invites a Mary Kay Cosmetic representative to give facials and pedicures before the meeting begins. Many members are planning a family vacation together this summer to the Outer Banks, off the coast of North Carolina. After reading the book Loving Frank, Thunberg is planning an excursion to the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park.

“Books touch an emotional cord for anyone who reads them,” she says. “When you converse with each other about a book, it brings a different perspective about what you’ve read. We’re all very good friends, but some of the books have caused some serious conversations that were heated, intense or philosophical. Sometimes we cry. A book can strike people in different ways, depending on what is going on in your life at that particular time.”

WEGAB Book Club

The social aspect of WEGAB (We Eventually Get Around to the Book) is a big deal for this Rockford-based group, as it is for most book clubs.

Formed in the late 1990s, WEGAB has eight members, three original to the group. They’re mostly professional women, working in fields such as health care, fundraising, marketing and graphic design, and they meet on the first Monday evening of each month.

“We like it that the group is smaller,” says Michelle Gorham, who works as director of the Rockford Memorial Development Foundation. “It’s as much about connecting with each other as it is about connecting with the book. Our club brings people together and stimulates conversation.”
“It’s an opportunity to get to know people I already know on a different level,” adds member Jan Jann, marketing director at Williams McCarthy law firm.

The only official role in the WEGAB club is that of the secretary, who keeps track of the books chosen by the group, dating back 10 years. The women meet mostly in their homes, but books occasionally prompt a road trip. Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent van Gogh, called for a trip to the Chicago Art Institute to view its Van Gogh exhibit. After reading Jacqueline Onassis’ autobiography, members headed off to the Field Museum in Chicago to see an exhibit titled Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years. Whenever a member takes a vacation, she typically brings home bookmarks as keepsakes for club members.

One of the group’s most memorable experiences was reading 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos, an account of the history, science, politics and struggles surrounding the building of the atomic bomb, written by Jennet Conant, whose grandfather, James B. Conant, was an administrator for the Manhattan Project. The women enjoyed the book so much that, in 2010, they traveled to Santa Fe, N.M., where member Helen Brooks owns a home. During their visit, they took a class at the Santa Fe School of Cooking, toured the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, hiked with llamas, dined at local restaurants and celebrated Brooks’ 50th birthday.

When Gorham returned home from visiting a friend in Paris last year, she organized a celebration with her book club at Greenfire, a new restaurant in Rockford. She worked with the chef ahead of time, to prepare a special menu which reflected her time spent in Paris.

WEGAB enjoys a range of authors, from first-time novelists to seasoned pros. Members take book reviews into consideration. Occasionally, they will chose a book after hearing the author interviewed on the radio. At the end of each year, they revisit books and reflect on what they liked and disliked about each one.

“For me, it’s all about the writing,” says Brooks, who works as vice president of community and regional development at Rockford Health System. “For others, it’s all about the story. Each of us has her own perspective, and we respect that.”

Aside from the reading material, trips and socialization, WEGAB members have become close friends who lean on each other during difficult times. For example, when Jann’s husband suffered a heart attack, her book club was among the first to send flowers.

“If something is going on with one of us, you can call and we’ll be there for you,” Gorham says. “We get mad with you, sad with you, or happy with you. Most importantly, we’re there to listen to you.”
Perhaps British playwright William Nicholson got it right, when he said: “We read to know that we are not alone.”

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