My book group’s been around longer than yours

recentreadsHow do you get 35 women to agree on 11 books to read over the next year?

I belong to a remarkable book group, known as A.M. Lit (it meets on the first Friday morning of the month) and sponsored for 40-ish years by my local branch of the American Association of University Women.

You could say it’s a bit of an institution.

Like many of its members I initially joined thirty-odd years ago (yes, many members have been a part of the group at least that long!) when I had toddlers at home and desperately needed something beyond Sesame Street. Part of the charm back then was that we used to hire a local college girl or two to babysit our kids in the hostess’s basement or playroom while we discussed that month’s book over coffee upstairs. It was wonderful and the source of many of my earliest suburban mom friendships.

When I returned to a full-time job and was no longer free on the first Friday morning, A.M. Lit fell by the wayside. Fast forward a career later; when I retired, one friend who had remained active the entire time encouraged me to return. It was like coming home. Several women had remained active in the group the entire time, others had drifted off and come back as I was doing. And there were several great new friends to make as well.

But I digress.

Despite ample chit chat before and after each meeting, A.M. Lit is serious about discussing each book. A volunteer leads each each discussion, researching the author and reviews of the book. But this is all just background, because it’s the discussion that drives the group.

These women are not shy. They like it or they don’t and they say why. Because there is a collective body of shared reading history for many of the members, they often draw on that criticism to illuminate the current book and/or make their point. Newer members present yet another point of view. It’s always dynamic, never boring and I frequently come away with more on my reading list.

septreadBack to the matter of book selection.

We choose a year’s reading list at the regular September meeting. Potential books are submitted ahead of time, then briefly recapped by their advocate at the meeting. The resulting discussion is a thoughtful, deliberate process, peppered by frank debate (“I can’t read one more book about WWII;” “This is a best seller we’ll all read eventually anyway; let’s not waste a choice on it here;” “That’s too many pages!” and my personal favorite: “I didn’t read this until after I recommended it; it’s awful and I’m withdrawing it.”).

This group purposely chooses titles that we know are going to stretch our reading interests and our minds. We don’t necessarily choose from the best seller lists and we often throw in a classic (All Quiet on the Western Front comes to mind. Not only did we like the book and enjoy a lively discussion, but many of us admitted we had somehow never read it before!) Not all selections are fiction. Last year we read The Boys in the Boat and Dead Wake. Both great reads; a number of us were surprised at how much we enjoyed them.

We winnow down the final choices by voting (hatchmarks next to each title listed on a whiteboard). Not surprisingly, with 30 or 35 people participating, it often takes more than one round of voting to get the list pared down to 11 choices. It’s not the Electoral College, but it works.

So, what are we reading this year? Redeployment by Phil Klay, Mean Spirit by Linda Hogan, Doc by Maria Doria Russell, The Forest Lover by Susan Vreeland, Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks, Someone by Alice McDermott, The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, and The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney.

Many of us are in other book clubs, some more academic and some more social. But for me, A.M. Lit will always offer a benchmark.

So, what are you reading these days? I’d love to hear.

See you next time!

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(More than) a few thoughts on Labor Day

I’m always a little hesitant about making plans for Labor Day. My husband is a hayfever sufferer and this weekend is often the pinnacle of his misery. I’ve learned not to make big plans for this holiday, at least for the two of us.

So, I was really excited when my daughter found a new flea/antique/vintage market for us to explore Saturday. It was an easy hour-or-so drive south of Wheaton, and a beautiful day (as in notably cooler and without significant humidity), really perfect for this kind of an outing.

Our destination was Wilmington, Illinois, a small town on the Kankakee River and right on the original Route 66 (a route I fantasize about road-tripping on). Although a lot of the vendors along the street were focused on crafts and vintage toys (as opposed to the furniture, ironstone, etc. that we might prefer), it was still fun to look. And, behind the vendors, was one antique shop after another. We spent a lot of time looking!

We found a few things (and I passed up a really neat brown transferware platter because I got distracted looking at all the other stuff!). But Maggie had the best find, this cool, divided tin tray. It’s not an antique, but it definitely has that Joanna Gaines/Fixer Upper vibe.

 

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After all this shopping, we rewarded ourselves with burgers, fries and onion rings at a local diner before heading for home. On the way back we tossed around different ways to accessorize the tin tray. This lead to a “shopping” expedition in my basement storage boxes and cabinets, which led to these pretty plates from my mother’s best friend, a vintage tablecloth with matching napkins, some craft store pumpkins, and two old wood boxes all going home with Maggie.

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And on day 2

But this was just the beginning of the three-day weekend. I had accepted an invitation to a late-season cookout Sunday afternoon. The hosts are two of the nicest people I know. They share a the “gracious gene,” warmly welcoming guests to their beautifully restored Victorian home. Elizabeth is a fabulous cook and loves cooking for others. (Are her friends, family and co-workers lucky or what?) We don’t get to see them often enough. If my husband felt truly awful, it would not be the first time I went to an event alone and made his apologies.

Happily, thanks to a new prescription regime, my husband was able to join me for a wonderful evening catching up with a few old friends as well as some engaging conversation with new acquaintances. Our hosts’ home is surrounded by gardens and patios, clearly designed for entertaining as well as a setting for their home.

Enough talk, look at their garden! All I had was an iphone and dwindling light, but I think I was able to get a sense of the color and abundance of the garden beds genuinely overflowing with blooms and herbs. Not to mention the garage with the roofline that mimics the house, the lantern and the clock. The best designs are always about details.

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That brings us to Labor Day itself

While we we driving to Wilmington on Saturday, a friend texted to ask if we’d like to join them to cookout Monday afternoon. Once again, hoping Steve would feel better, I said yes. It was a lovely, low-key time with just six of us sitting around the table on the hosts’ porch talking travels past and future and what the grandkids have been up to. At some point late in the evening I walked into the kitchen (which looks this pretty after dinner) and snapped this picture, the best evidence I know of time well spent with good friends.

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And thinking about Labor Day

My maternal grandparents (the only ones I knew) raised my mother and uncle, along with a niece and nephew, in a small house in a working class neighborhood on the south side of Chicago in the 1920’s and 1930’s. They knew only too well the value of having a job to go to every day, because they also knew people who weren’t that lucky. When I was a little girl and would sometimes spend the day with them, Grandpa would ask at the dinner table what I did to earn my dinner that day. And I would report that I dusted or I helped Grandma bake pies or maybe I washed my doll’s clothes while 
Grandma did laundry.

As an adult I have often thought of those dinner table conversations. I did my homework, did the laundry, took my kids to the library, got the magazine to the printer, wrote a blog post. What I do in a day matters. And the work that we do matters a lot. When I was in the business world and someone was really ripped by a co-worker or a superior or even a client, invariably another co-worker would say, “it’s not personal, it’s business.” But, you know what? Our business — the work we do — is personal. It defines us and makes us who we are.

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This is my salute to workers past and present. Wishing you a week with lots of good work.

See you next time!