An interview with The Sisterhood - a 13-year-old book group based in Frankfort, KY.
Johnna, your club has been together for over 13 years! How did The Sisterhood get its start?
I formed the group after getting divorced. I had been married for 27 years and found that I was reading romance novels to escape from the break up. While romances do have their place, I realized I wanted something more substantial. So eight or so of us started meeting at a coffee shop downtown to discuss other books. The shop closed at 8:00 p.m., and we always felt rushed to leave. We started meeting at my house because I like to host and everyone else seems to enjoy coming over. We normally meet the third Tuesday of every month, or as the members like to add, "unless Johnna decides to change it." I really try not to do that.
Where are you located? What is the demographic of your group?
We are in Frankfort, Kentucky, the state capital. (You wouldn't believe how many people do not know that - and I'm speaking of Kentuckians!) We are all women between the ages of 45 and 63. Most are life-long readers but some haven't read much at all. Some of us have traveled and a few have traveled together. It makes for a good mix. We aren't varied as far as income, race or education, but we are different in our likes, dislikes, and politics. We try to stay away from politics because we are all very strong-willed, and it causes friction. But our city relies on the political world, being the capital. One of our members is on the city library board, a big deal here since it's a political appointment. Five are or have been teachers and most worked or are working in state government.
How do you handle conflict when it does arise?
We have laughingly said that if someone upsets me, I will kick them out of the club. It has only happened once - this particular person was drinking too much and saying inappropriate things to hurt the other members' feelings. I just stopped sending her emails telling her about meetings. Sometimes we get aggravated with one another over liberal vs. conservative attitudes. I realize that you cannot change people at our age so I just try to get "unaggravated"... It doesn't work so great. Every once in a while people carry on too much of a side conversation. I tell them they cannot sit together. Usually I just talk louder or say their names as a good bossy teacher does. We mostly have good manners though, and we all know if we get mad it doesn't last.
What do you attribute to The Sisterhood's longevity and success?
Someone has to be in charge to do the organizing. In The Sisterhood - or as some of the more sarcastic members call it, "Johnna's Book Club" - I'm the boss and they know it. I say that tongue in cheek because, really, it's like herding cats. I give everyone homework (I use BookBrowse's reading guides) and assign questions to each person. More than anything, it's about nurturing the feeling of belonging that the club provides. Sometimes nothing's ready when they arrive, but no one cares. They just join in and help. One member told me just this week that we have an atmosphere of love and security. We know we can confide without judgment, we can cry, but mostly we laugh. We learn from one another too.
I imagine that after 13 years, The Sisterhood has seen its share of funny and interesting meetings. What's this I hear about the police showing up at your house?
Picture this: Our book club, having eaten its fill and still drinking, had begun a rousing group discussion when there came a pounding on the front door. We opened it to find Officer Baker, a city policeman, who we immediately mistook for a stripper and/or prank visitor. He stopped in awe of our presence because he was expecting to find a drug deal going down. We stopped in awe of his presence because he continued to keep his clothes on. Together we eventually found out that a phone call tip reporting drug deals at my house were incorrect. We took a picture of him to prove to absent members what they had missed. I have no idea what book we were discussing.
How funny! That reminds me of the "Retired, Relaxed, and Reading" book club that had an unexpected visit from the bomb squad. What other experiences or practices would you say make The Sisterhood a unique book club?
I keep a diary with monthly entries. If someone has an interesting comment it's quoted in the "Bible," but mostly I just keep track of our food and drinks. I tell them what I'm cooking or what drink I'm making, and they bring food to compliment that. Also, we stay aware of the needs of our community. It can be something we read in the paper or something we just find out about. For example, there's a place in Berea that provided job training and education for women in need, and the facility burned down. They had no place to meet. Many of us sent money. Every Christmas we buy gifts for children in low-income families. We wrap the gifts, and one of the retired teachers in our group delivers them. We also support our local book store even though prices are higher than Amazon.
What sort of books does your group tend to pick?
We read a lot of fiction. We have a few topics that, because of personal experiences, we do not read about: breast cancer, the death of a child, child abuse. One member really dislikes mysteries so we seldom read them. We select one non-fiction title a year and one Kentucky author a year (or at least we try on both counts).
How do you decide which books to read? Do you have a system?
About every four months I email everyone that we need book titles. Three or four of us are avid readers and bring a lot of ideas. I do research about the books, and then we discuss them. Some are picked and some not. It's about half and half. Those of us who prefer the feel, smell, and sight of a book (as opposed to an e-reader) usually purchase our books, so we buy paperbacks to keep the cost down. We often donate them to our library when we're done.
What are some of the books that have generated the most interesting discussions?
Sisters in Pain by Kentucky authors L. Elisabeth Beattie and Mary Shaughnessy was one of the hardest books to discuss.
It is non-fiction about women incarcerated and their stories of abuse. Very difficult to hear. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides was such an odd topic that we enjoyed learning about the characters. We had a long discussion about The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards because we found several incorrect facts. For example, Interstate 64 wasn't built when Ms. Edwards refers to it in her book. These kinds of errors might not mean anything to people outside this area, but it does to us.
What books have been the group's favorites?
Although not everyone liked it, we had a lot of fun reading
This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper.
The dysfunction of the family was so funny. Don't funerals bring out our best and worst? Many of us absolutely loved A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. We even took two months to read and discuss it. Love anything by Rick Bragg.
What books disappointed you?
Many in our club didn't enjoy Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. They felt it was the same story told over and over. We were all disappointed by The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd, perhaps because we loved The Secret Life of Bees so much.
Do you have any words of wisdom for other book groups out there?
Read the books more often - I'm talking about me!
Thank you Johnna and all the "Sisters." It's been an absolute pleasure getting to know your group!