Camille Park, one of the 14 members of the 3 Rs Book Club - Retired, Relaxed and Reading - based in Tallahassee, Florida, joins us to discuss how these retired educators keep their meetings explosively fun: literature-inspired treats, historical presentations... even bringing a live grenade to a meeting!
Tell us a little bit about the 3 Rs Book Club; how did you first come together as a group?
Many of us had been working and didn't even have the time to watch Oprah's Book Club on television let alone join a book group, but the desire had long been present. When some of us retired, we mentioned that it would be fun to form a club. Several of us began talking to members of a long-established local book club for ideas on how to start, procedures, etc; and a librarian gave us suggestions on how to pick titles.
We began with an organizational meeting in the winter of 2006, got together informally after that, and started meeting monthly during the school year of 2007 to 2008. No one voted on members; it was all by word of mouth - friends asking friends.
How many people are in your club now?
14 members - currently the number is "capped" since we want to keep the group conducive to meeting in each others' homes, and we don't want things to get unwieldy. A few original members have dropped out for various reasons, but for the most part, the core group remains intact.
I have to admit, the name of your book club, "Retired, Relaxed and Reading," sounds like a slice of heaven. What is the demographic of your group? Are you all retired?
Yes! We are all female, retired teachers ranging in age from 60-70. (Everyone had to be a retired teacher to be considered for membership). While most of us are grandmothers, we're all mothers and married. During our careers as educators, we taught various subjects; among us there are:
- three high school foreign language teachers
- two principals
- two district administrators
- one speech therapist
- three elementary school teachers
- one high school English teacher
- one special education curriculum specialist
- one media specialist
That sounds like an intelligent group of women to say the least! How do these dynamics - specifically, your background as teachers - shape the book club's discussions?
Since we are all former educators, we approach our discussions as opportunities to learn something. Each person has a chance to "teach" the others about the book she facilitates. Since reading was a priority to all of us in our careers - and remains important in our personal lives - we continue to learn facts and historical details relating to the books we choose using maps, artifacts, videos, timelines, and other media. Given our experience, we have no trouble speaking in front of a group and we know how to make a presentation. We also are used to doing research and finding supporting information on the internet.
Tell me more about how you choose which books to read. How does your facilitation process work?
3 Rs Book Club meets once per month during the school year (September through May), and each year we "nominate" books in March to be considered for the following year. We discuss them again at our meeting in April, and then vote in May, which is our last gathering of the year. Last year, there were 50 suggestions, which, of course, had to be cut down to a final list of nine. We are given a short annotation on each book, and nominators state the reason why they'd like their book(s) to be considered. We try to pick the most difficult and/or the longest book as the first of the year, since we'll have the whole summer to read it. Some people are slower readers than others!
After the votes have been tabulated and the nine books have been announced, members volunteer to "facilitate" each book at one meeting during the year. Usually, an individual member serves as the facilitator for a title, but there are times when the buddy system is used. The facilitator chooses her own way/method of presenting the book, but afterwards an open discussion is encouraged, often with the help of reading guides.
In a separate process, nine members volunteer to host meetings in their homes. After the May meeting, our unofficial secretary sends us a roster of book titles, hostesses, and facilitators for each month. We've found that if you are a hostess, you probably won't want to facilitate the same gathering - it would be double duty for one morning!
You meet in the morning? That's interesting; I usually only hear about clubs that meet in the evening. Is that another perk of being retired?
Yes! We begin the meeting at 10:00 am with a half hour for refreshments (light fare with fruit, sweet rolls, juice, coffee, etc.) and then from 10:30 to noon the facilitator makes her presentation and we discuss the book.
What kinds of books do you usually pick?
I don't know if this was intended, but we've generally chosen books that feature very strong women. We admire the women in Jeannette Walls's books; Eleanor Roosevelt in "No Ordinary Time"; and the pioneer women in "These is My Words" by Nancy Turner. We had a spirited discussion about the family of women in "The Poisonwood Bible" by Barbara Kingsolver. After reading "The Bookseller of Kabul", we talked about the horrible situations that continue to exist for women in male-dominated societies throughout the world today.
We also try to read at least one classic each year, as well as one book about Florida or written by a Floridian. The classics we have chosen, such as The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, The Sound and the Fury, are all books we were assigned to read in high school or college, but we learned so much more by reading them as adults, reflecting on them with more experienced eyes. Having an English teacher as part of the group has been very helpful in understanding the novels' deeper meanings.
We balance the list of nine books with some light reading, as well as non-fiction. Many of the suggested titles come from books friends have recommended and some have been on the Oprah's Book Club list (coincidence?). We have also consulted resources such as the Top 100 Books of the 20th Century, the New York Times Bestseller List, and, of course, BookBrowse.
Which books have generated the most interesting discussions?
- No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin
- The Team of Rivals also by Doris Kearns Goodwin
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
- The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
- Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
- The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Why do you think those books were so conducive to lively conversations?
Each of these books had either a historical connection to us (or our parents) or resonated with us as mothers and women. Looking back at history with a new respect for a strong person (Eleanor Roosevelt, Abe Lincoln, POWs in Japan) or thinking about social injustice from a place of deeper understanding (Cutting for Stone, The Help, To Kill a Mockingbird) caused some strong reactions.
Also, our facilitators have had some clever ways of connecting these books to our meetings. During our gathering for The Help, the hostess made a chocolate pie with a surprise in it - TOFU! When we read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, the facilitator constructed a Red Cross Box and filled it with samples of what war rations would have been.
For No Ordinary Time, one of our members brought in some World War II memorabilia from her father's time in the armed service, including a helmet, parts of his uniform, and a hand grenade - which was later determined to be active so we had to call the bomb squad to come disarm it!
Oh my goodness! That must have made for a rather memorable meeting! Pardon my pun, but... were there any books you chose that bombed?
Yes, and usually it was because they were hard to understand or follow, or because the writing was not what we expected. Love in the Time of Cholera was especially difficult because of the very wordy translation we chose. We have found that sometimes just because a book has great reviews, doesn't mean it will be one of our favorites. That is ok - we don't all like the same foods either.
Speaking of favorites, what are your favorite things about belonging to the 3 Rs Book Club?
The group has adopted outstanding ways to facilitate the books. As I mentioned, when we read No Ordinary Time one of our members brought in real WWII memorabilia; when we read Cutting for Stone, we had a young woman from the Peace Corps who had recently returned from Ethiopia speak about her experiences there; when we read Ladies of Liberty by Cokie Roberts, the hostess made a cake from a recipe in the White House Cookbook (1887) that supposedly came from Dolley Madison. Each facilitator and hostess tries, when possible, to link the book to the morning's refreshments.
In addition to learning a lot about many new topics, being in this book club provides us with a monthly chance to see our friends! We've formed a strong community that cares a lot about each other and provides support during tough times. For instance, one member's house burned down in May; many of us from 3 R's helped her move into her temporary home and assisted with various chores after this terrible event.
What an inspiring group; it sounds like your friendships go well beyond book discussions. Are there any special events or activities you do that might help inspire other groups?
Since our last meeting is a long one, we have a covered dish luncheon. Each member brings a food item; it's a nice way to culminate our year of meetings. We have had groups go to the movies together, for example to see The Help. We're currently talking about getting more involved with our community - donating our books to literacy drives, getting involved with The Big Read.
At our meeting in December of 2011, we invited an author to come to our meeting. The Gendarme was written by Mark Mustian, an attorney and City Commissioner in Tallahassee. Two husbands of our members had also read the book, so they asked if they could attend the meeting to hear Mr. Mustian speak. We may try to have other events that include our husbands in the future, since they hear us talk so much about the books as well as our friends in the book club!
Do you have any advice for other book groups?
- Set guidelines from the beginning:
Number of members
- Decide if your group wants to talk exclusively about the book or if you also want to learn about things beyond the book - keep a balance.
- All members should share responsibilities of hosting and facilitating.
- Keep things manageable! We learned that you can't submit 50 titles for consideration. This year, we are asking each member to contribute only one or two suggestions instead. Members can always recommend a title to others to read on their own, without making it part of the list for "voting".
- You don't have to read the whole book if you don't like it, but - as a librarian once suggested to me - try 50 pages before quitting. Even if you don't finish, you can still come to the meeting for the friendship and to learn more about the book/subject/author. There are no grades and no embarrassment! After all, we are in this to have fun, learn a lot, and become more appreciative of each other.
Image above: The 3 Rs Book Club with author Mark Mustian, December 2011