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Has your book club been thinking of reading more nonfiction or had trouble finding nonfiction titles that generate good discussions?

If so, you'll find this month's interview with Mary Goulding of the The Fourth Monday Book Club fascinating, and the club's annotated suggestion list of more than 30 books invaluable because, with the exception of an occasional high quality historical fiction novel, the club exclusively reads nonfiction!

Hello Mary, please could you describe your group to us and how it got started.

You've put me on the spot with your first question! Truth is, I've never been a fan of Book Clubs, and my memberships in several have been short-lived.  Too often, they've kept me from reading books I'd rather read. We've lost some of the people who started out with us for the same reason, and I fully understand, and respect, their choice.

A friend, Rita Cavanagh, called me three years ago and asked if I'd be interested in co-founding a book group with her. We talked, decided we wanted to do only non-fiction, but absolutely no self-help and no "here's how I got over my addiction" types. We're retired, children raised, comfortable with the selves we have, hold close whatever addictions we've held onto, and love to learn. Rita and I were both librarians, so it wasn't hard to find about 15 "book people" to give it a try. They're a great bunch. I've heard more than one say they love to come just because it's so good to have some intelligent discussion with other women.

No men?

Men? We thought about it, but suspected the women (and the men?) might be more open without mixing in the gender thing. I've been in one group that was coed; the men tended to dominate. Both sexes, I think, bear equal blame for that, but there it is.

Does your group have a name?

We chose the name "Fourth Monday Book Club" because most of us are of an age when we forget dates unless they're in bold print at the top of the page.

Standing L to R: Joan, Bleue, Mary, Sheila, Rita, Pauline. Sitting L to R: Eva, Chris; not pictured: Sandra & Bernie (behind the camera!)

Tell us a little about your meetings?

We chose from the beginning to reserve a room at the local public library.  Again, maybe it's our age (I like to think it's our busy schedules), but who needs to worry about who likes what kind of herbal tea and whether or not the napkins match? This particular library, Oak Park (IL), had the good grace to include a coffee shop at the entrance of their new building, so quite a few of us bring a latte or an iced tea upstairs. We like it – no vacuuming, no lemon tarts, no social chatter. It's not at all unusual to see smaller groups having lunch at a nearby restaurant before the meeting or coffee-klatching downstairs afterward – all to the good! Rita and I usually have lunch the week before each meeting to test out discussion points, just in case they're needed.

We meet once a month, December excepted, and meetings last an hour to an hour and a half. It's 100% book chat, with about 5-10 minutes of business at the beginning: upcoming titles, info on discounted books we've arranged at the local independent book store, handouts. One of our members is a librarian at Oak Park (we aren't ALL old ladies), so she can arrange interlibrary loans, if needed. We do limit ourselves to paperbacks, so those who wish can buy reasonably.

After three years, is it difficult to keep the meetings interesting?

No problem keeping things "fresh." We all love our January meeting when we have no specific discussion. Each person recommends any book she thinks others would enjoy, no strings attached, and we usually have time for 2 or 3 rounds. Many of those titles end up on our annotated "Suggestions" list for future consideration (I've included our current suggestion list at the end of this chat).  Obviously, we have more good ideas ahead of us than we will live long enough to enjoy. 

Members volunteer to lead, and nobody has to just because they suggested the book. If nobody steps up, Rita or I do the leading, but we seldom have to fill a gap. We think it's best if someone who is already interested in the subject, and is comfortable leading, does the job. A few people never lead.  A few often do. It works out fine.

You've told us that your group only reads non-fiction and occasional historical fiction, so let's start naming names!  Can you tell us some of the books that went down well with your group and any in particular that bombed?

We occasionally slip in historical fiction to lighten things up. The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory was a great success; Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley was not. Surprisingly, not many historical fiction titles have even been suggested, though I know many of us read them. I think the group expects something different at this club. Everyone in the group recommends books and is honest about the length and the depth to expect. To actually place a title on the calendar, majority rules. Not everyone is vitally interested in every subject, but that, I think, is accepted as part of the purpose. Our minds get opened up to things we wouldn't have chosen for ourselves.

For example, one of our discussions was on William Manchester's A World Lit Only by Fire. It's not an easy book, and takes the medieval Catholic Church, along with the medieval aristocracy, to task. One of our members, a staunch Catholic with a high school education, had a hard time getting through it. At the meeting she said, in effect, "I hated this book, I thought it was disgusting, but I was determined to finish it. The night I finished it, I threw it into a chair across the room and turned on the nightly news. Within a few minutes I found myself sitting there open-jawed, realizing that I was watching that book on TV. Five hundred years have passed, and we're doing it all over again! I bought a copy to give each of my kids for Christmas." I think that says it all!

Bombs? A few. Barcelona the Great Enchantress by Robert Hughes was a total disappointment; Savage Beast by Nancy Milford (about Edna St. Vincent Millay) didn't go over well with more than a few people, nor did Paris Was Yesterday by Janet Flanner.

The Best? Undoubtedly Doris Kearns Goodwin's No Ordinary Time. I say undoubtedly because the group actually asked that we continue the discussion for two meetings. It probably didn't hurt that we had co-leaders, one who had grown up in England and one in Germany during the 1940's. They even provided time charts of the book's span, showing each of their own situations at the time.

I asked the group for their favorites. These are a few I heard the loudest: Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer, Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling by Ross King, Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder, Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich and Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller.

Do you ever find yourself reading more about a particular topic after having read a book about it for the book club?

Absolutely! After last month's Victoria's Daughters by Jerrold Packard, I ran right out for Born to Rule by Julia Gelardi, about the granddaughters, and have almost finished watching the DVD Flight of Eagles (a BBC production), about the fall of the royal houses the granddaughters married into. David Lamb's The Arabs opened up a new interest in the Palestinian side of things – something I'd had little exposure to before our discussion; and the discussions don't always lead just to further reading - after reading An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore, more than one of us went home and changed to energy-efficient light bulbs, and they leaned hard on me to stop with the paper plates!

Do you have any advice for other groups that might be just starting out?

  • Don't worry about numbers. We thought we should have at least 15, but have a steady 7-10 at each meeting. We learned that eight interested people are better than sixteen if half of them didn't read the book and are just waiting for social hour.
  • Let the willing leaders lead. You'll have better discussion.
  • Leaders should, of course, have some prepared springboards for discussion; however, they should never be wedded to their own list of questions. Go with the flow.
  • Maybe next time we would consider inviting men to get their perspective? On second thought .....

Thank you, Mary. You've provided plentiful food for thought. Special thanks for sharing your club's suggestion list for the coming year; I'm sure that will be particularly useful to many of us.

Each year The Fourth Monday Club put together a suggestion list for the coming year.  This is their current list:


Barzini, Luigi: The Italians
, (Mary) 339pp.
In this 40 year old classic Barzini delves into the character of a people who produced Michelangelo, Verdi, Mussolini, and the Mafia; whose economy and politics have been, century after century, in shambles; whose sense of amore and gioia de vita remain unquenchable. Witty, warm, and wonderful.

Blum, Deborah. Ghost Hunters (Bernie) 464pp.
Can scientists apply their scientific methods to the paranormal, e.g., mind-reading and spiritualism? Blum doesn't offer answers, but – beginning in the 1880's - chronicles the experiences of those who did – and do. Why do spirits appear fully clothed? And when scientists sneer, “why is it so noble and respectable to find whence man came, and so suspicious and dishonorable to ask and ascertain whither he goes?” It's an interesting look at the possible world ahead and, after all – we're all on our way!

Cahill, Thomas. How the Irish Saved Civilization (Rita) 224pp
When we deleted the sole Irish title from our old list, Rita was reminded of this one and didn't want our book club bereft of a bit o' the green.  It's a good choice, the first of Cahill's 5 volume “Hinges of History” series, including the just-published Mysteries of the Middle Ages. We all know about the fall of the Roman Empire and the “dark ages.” What enabled Europe to move into the Middle Ages and the Renaissance? The Irish monks!  It's educational reading, and a good story to boot.

Chang, Jung. Wild Swans (Mary) 507pp.
Telling the stories of her grandmother, her mother and herself, and spanning the first 78 years of the 20th century, Chang weaves the history and culture of China into an achingly personal narrative. Most of the book focuses on living under Mao, and the cultural revolution. It's long, some of the detail can make a reader impatient, and I don't think the writing is stellar, but the story – the story is mesmerizing.

Clinton, Catherine: Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom (Mary) 304pp.
Advertised as the first “adult biography” of Tubman, this story of her mission of getting slaves to Canada is enhanced by Clinton's ability to put it in the context of place and time. The reviews are excellent. Haven't read it yet myself.

Cornwell, John. Hitler's Pope (Patt) 370pp
Cornwell is a Roman Catholic who writes a devastating account of Pius XII's lack of concern for the Jewish victims of Hitler. With access to formerly closed archives in various European libraries, including the Vatican, the book appears to be meticulously researched. It is interesting, however, to note that 4 years after this was published Rabbi David Dalin published The Myth of Hitler's Pope, which appears to be just as indisputable, and presents Pius as a man who provided asylum to thousands of Jews, and whose wishes he was following in not being more outspoken against Hitler at the time. While the truth may never be known, it is an interesting lesson in how and from whom we learn our history.

Fisher, MFK: How to Cook A Wolf (Rita) 216 pp.
One of many short books written during the 30's by Fisher – about food, about life, about a slice of time, but mostly about beautifully graceful writing. Rita and Mary would love this choice, but is it “discussable?”

Gaines, James. Evening in the Palace of Reason (Eva) 352pp
In one way this is a dual biography of Frederick the Great of Prussia and J.S. Bach; in another, a classic debate about the virtues of the old and progress of the new, with Frederick the herald of the “Enlightenment” and Bach as the flag-bearer of tradition. It's a strange, but interesting, pairing and you can count on the sparks continuing to fly. Seldom will the language of 18th century German history or of contrapuntal music be so accessible as in what one reviewer calls Gaines's “chatty style.”

Greenblatt, Stephen: Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (Rita) 576 pp.
If Greenblatt's book is “only conjecture,” as some critics claim, it is surely the most reliable conjecture available to us. A Harvard professor and a world-class expert on Shakespeare and his times, Greenblatt focuses on the life around Will as he grows up, using hints from his plays along with scholarship, as clues. As readers, we are enveloped by the political and religious controversies, the witchcraft, the family life and festivals of Elizabethan England. I'm no Shakespearean drama fan, but I loved the ”in the world” part,” and who knows – I may give the Bard another try!

Hakakian, Roya. Journey From the Land of No (Raita) 234pp.
It's a wonderfully enlightening memoir of Hakakian's Jewish family's experience in Iran during the transition from the rule of the Shah to that of the Ayatollah Khomeni. You may know her today from 60 Minutes or NPR's All things Considered, but this is the story of a 12-year-old girl whose life was totally changed when her Muslim friends suddenly became enemies, her heritage reviled, her intelligence and gender humiliated. A good, easy-to-read, much-to-learn book.

Johnson, Steven: Ghost Map (Chris) 320pp.
You may not want to curl up with a book about cholera – but what about a good detective story? Just two men, Dr. Snow and Rev. Whitehead, suspected the true perpetrator of the epidemic disease, and spent their lives unearthing evidence to place the guilt where it belonged. Not an easy task among London Victorians, who preferred to blame “bad air.” According to Johnson, there are lessons here for our own day. Maybe we should pay attention?

Kuhn, Thomas: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chris) 226 pp.
Chris Long handed me this bit from a newspaper: “…one of the characteristics of a scientific (one might say learning) community is that it both clings to tradition and relies on the subversion of tradition in order to undergo what is commonly understood as progress.” The writer credits his understanding of this principle to Kuhn's book. Some reviews tag it “not difficult,” others “not for the casual reader,” and one finally tells me it is a “history of how scientists think.” Shades of Evening in the Palace of Reason (above)? And are we curious enough to find out what it's all about?

Maurice, Edward Beauclerk: The Last Gentleman Adventurer (Mary) 416 pp.
It was the 1930's when Maurice joined a Hudson Bay team on a trip to the Arctic. He ended up staying on and sharing the lives of the Inuits.  Though Maurice wrote of his adventures there only in his old age, the tale is a detailed and riveting story of Inuit culture. ..something I'd like to know more about. Anybody else?

Nasaw, David. The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst (Mary) 607pp.
I'll start with the bad news: 600 pages is a lot, and best described by the Publishers Weekly reviewer who called it “extraordinary and excessive detail.” So skim the detail, if you wish…it's hard to be anything but fascinated by one of the largest personalities of the 20th century. He dealt with Churchill and Hitler, sought the U.S. presidency, built perhaps the most influential publishing company ever, was one of the world's great art collectors, and managed to keep two households – wife Millicent and children on the East Coast, and mistress Marian Davies on the West. Hearst scholars, by the way, say Nasaw's book displaces our more familiar Citizen Kane image. I loved this book!

Philbrick, Nathaniel: Mayflower (Eva) 480pp.
So what do you know about American history between 1620 and 1776? Philbrick is here to tell you, and you'll find few stories so full of heroism, tragedy, and raw survival. Philbrick's stories of the first Thanksgiving, Miles Standish, and the Plymouth Rock landing (it never happened?) may destroy some comfortable myths, but he'll replace them with enlightening realities about the pilgrims and American Indians alike. This might be a good cure for our book club's neglect of early American history.

Sachs, Jeffrey: The End of Poverty. 416 pp.
Publisher's Weekly says that if any one book will put poverty back on the global agenda “this is it!” Sachs is a world-renowned economist with world wide experience over a quarter of a century. He raises questions; more important, he offers answers. Probably not the book you want to read in bed at night, but awareness of its message might make you feel “wider awake” in the morning. Personally, I've read only bits and pieces – I need a reason to accept the challenge. Want to give me one?

Stewart, Rory: The Places In Between (Rita) 297pp.
It is only months after 9/11 when Stewart takes off on a two-year walk across Afghanistan. While dealing with a hostile landscape and a suspicious local government, he meets and talks with villagers and students, military guards and a dog named Babur. There's much to be learned from a people we know little about, as Stewart focuses more on the “what I saw” than “what I
think” – kind of refreshing.

Theroux, Paul: Dark Star Safari (Karen) 496 pp.
Traveling by bus, train, and cattle truck, Theroux describes his experiences from Cairo to the tip of Africa. Reviewers call this “his best,” but it didn't please some fans who thought it unfair to modern day Africa.  If a tour of Africa doesn't appeal, Theroux wrote so many fascinating books – train trips through Asia, China, Patagonia. I (MG) would love to do any one of them. I can always depend on learning a lot and laughing at least a little.

Thurber, James: The Years With Ross (Rita and Mary) 336 pp.
For those of us who remember the glory days of the New Yorker, this anecdotal behind the scenes look is a joy. I read it a few months ago and would love to have an excuse to do it again.

Tomalin, Claire: Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self (Mary) 378pp.
OK, I'm a Londonphile. Like a few other books on this list, this one is filled with what many judge too much detail. But how could there be too much detail about life in 17th century London – I love every decimal point!  Pepys was a tailor's son, a family man, a social butterfly, a clerk, Secretary of the Admiralty, a lover (and abuser?) of women, and because of his meticulous diary we know more about his world than any before the last century. He knew Christopher Wren, Isaac Walton, Oliver Cromwell and John Milton; he lived through the reigns of most of the Stuart kings, and was there when Charles I was executed, and watched the Great Fire of London. If you feel I'm getting into too much detail in this annotation – well, you probably wouldn't like the book, after all.

Walker, Paul Robert: The Feud That Sparked the Renaissance (Mary) 225pp.
Set in 15th century Florence, Walker's well-researched book brings the story of two very human beings, who also happened to be great artists and bitter rivals, to life. Ghiberti, sculptor of the famous Baptistery “doors of Paradise,” and Brunelleschi, architect of the greatest cathedral dome ever built, lived in a city full of artistic promise and the flowering of humanism. It's not really an “easy read,” but an engrossing one, and I thought it was better than Ross King's “Brunelleschi's Dome.”

Weir, Alison: Queen Isabella (Mary) 388pp.
When I first got interested in English history I read Costain's (remember him?) four volume history of the Plantagenets. The Queen who stuck in my mind was the 14th century “she-wolf of France” – this very same Isabella.  Married to Edward II, a homosexual whose great love was Piers Gaveston, Isabella did NOT fit our picture of the compliant 14th century wife. She's received a lot of bad press – and what English Queen wouldn't who'd led a revolution to unseat her husband/King - but Weir paints a much more heroic figure. We couldn't have a better judge than Alison Weir, and I thank her for some honorable reasons for being so easily drawn to Isabella.

Fictionalized History

Giardina, Denise: Saints and Villains
(Mary) 481 pp.
This one's on my bedside table right now, and I'm only about 1/3 of the way through it, but I'm captivated. The story of the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, would-be assassin of Hitler, is definitely fiction but incorporates all the facts we have available and builds them into a suspenseful tale of moral courage in a time most of us remember well.  I read the “Afterword” first, and am grateful for Giardina's clear explanation of what's real and what's not – now I can just lie back and enjoy a very good read. (2007 update: I finished it – it was great.)

Barnes, Julian: Arthur and George (Mary) 464 pp.
It's a novel, but incorporates everything we know about the life of Arthur Conan Doyle and his friendship with George Edalji, son of an Indian vicar and a Scottish mother. Every review gives it top rating for its treatment of Doyle's road to spiritualism, racial tensions and the justice system in Victorian Britain, to say nothing of Doyle's “imitation of fiction” when he takes on Sherlock's usual role and does his best to free George from an unjust sentence to 7 years in prison. Barnes's writing style and the flow of the story also get high marks. If we have any Holmes fans, you might want to take a look and let us know.

Please note: Some of the paginations include notes, bibliographies and indexes. If I don't have the book in my hand, I take them from the reviews and have often found the actual text to be 30-75 pages shorter than indicated.

This book club chat first ran in May 2009

© November 2012.

If you feel that your book group has something unique to offer, and you would like to tell others about it, please contact us with brief details, and maybe we can feature you in the future.

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