BookBrowse interviews Rosemary Toland, one of the sixteen members of the San Antonio based book club Las Revistas, discusses how they've kept the discussion flowing over 25 years and more than 200 books! about all aspects of their book club.

Book Club Interviews

Rosemary Toland, one of the sixteen members of the San Antonio based book club Las Revistas, discusses how they've kept the discussion flowing over 25 years and more than 200 books!

Hello Rosemary, thanks for chatting with BookBrowse.  I understand that your book club has been together for twenty-five years.  That’s longer than many people reading this have been reading books at all!  Tell us, what first brought you together?

Our book club actually began in 1980 when Patty Horridge, who had belonged to two different book clubs, moved to San Antonio. She recruited four friends and asked each to invite two more friends. The group started with around 10 women, met once a month during the day, brought sack lunches and the hostess provided dessert. Because of San Antonio's rich Mexican culture, the group chose the name Las Revistas (meaning "the readers").

Standing at the corner of a historic hotel in Jefferson, TX, is (l. to r.) Barbara Anne Stephens, Judith Wood, Rosemary Toland, Tina Thomas (member-al-large from Placitas, NM), Patty Horridge, Suzan O’Connor, Nancy Lodes (member-at-large from Tyler, TX), and Rebecca Harrison.

Are any of the founding members still with the group?

Four of the original members still belong, including Patty. As the club grew, by-laws were drawn up and the membership was limited to 16 members. This was the number most felt they could comfortably accommodate in their homes.

Some of your members must have moved away from the area over the years, do you manage to stay in contact with them?

At the present time we have three members (or members-at-large) who have moved away but keep in close contact with the club. One of the women, who moved to New Mexico, formed a book club within months of relocating. Whenever one of our "members-at-large" is in town we make an effort for the whole club to get together.

Has the format of your meetings stayed the same through the years?

With kids grown and schedules starting to change, the group decided to move from day to evening meetings. A group of our husbands decided this would to the ideal time to hold "poker night", which they have done for many years.

Can you tell us a little about how your meetings are structured?

Our year runs from August to May with book selection night held in April. One book is always chosen with our husbands in mind as we have a combined meeting usually in February. In December we either have a Christmas or a New Year’s party which includes spouses (or guests). No book is reviewed during this month. At this time we also support a charity (donating books to a children’s organization, supporting our local library, providing teddy bears to the Children’s Bereavement Center, etc).

Having been together for so long you must have got selecting books down to a science.  Please can you tell us how you do this?

During book selection night each member is encouraged to bring a list of books she would like to see selected for the new year. If a member is unable to attend that night, she can still send a list of books to be considered. We take turns promoting our choices and everyone writes down the titles being suggested. Those present then vote for eight books by secret ballot. Often we have to hold run-offs. If a book is promoted by more than one member, it is almost always a “shoo-in”. Since we have members with very varied interests, we usually have a wide variety to select from. One member, a retired English teacher, pushes us to read at least one classic each year, which we try to do. We have also done plays, poetry and short stories.

How about other logistical matters, such as who leads the meetings and staying in touch outside of meetings?

At the April meeting we decide which book will be reviewed each month, who the leader will be and who will host the meeting in their home. Usually the person whose book is selected volunteers to be the discussion leader. That person is responsible for providing background info on the author in addition to reviewing the book. It is up to the reviewer to keep the discussion moving and provide any interesting info she has found through her research, such as reviews, interviews with the author, etc. During this meeting we also elect a president and treasurer for the new year. The president is responsible for sending out the new schedule to each members and reminding them monthly about the meeting or any changes. She does this by email.

Are there some books that stand out as favorites, and any that you recollect not being a success?

Of the 200 plus books the club has read, three come to mind that the members did not like. They are Neighbors by Thomas Berger, First Among Equals by Jeffery Archer and Fly Fishing through Mid-Life by Hal Raines.

The group does seem to have some favorite authors: Barbara Kingsolver (Animal Dreams, Bean Trees, Pigs in Heaven, Poisonwood Bible and Prodigal Summer), Margaret Atwood (Alias Grace, The Robber Bride and Oryx and Crate), Michael Dorris (Yellow Raft in Blue Water and Paper Trail) and Sandra Cisneros (House on Mango Street and Carmello).

How do you keep the discussions fresh year after year?  

Our group is not shy about jumping in with their impressions and "take" on a book. Many times someone will announce that they didn't like the book and didn't finish it, only to change their mind after our discussion and say they plan to go home and finish it.

Most of our reviewers go above and beyond just discussing the book. They look for different angles which will enhance the discussion. The year my husband and I were in charge of reviewing Lincoln by Gore Vidal for the joint meeting we looked for a way to keep the discussion interesting since many found the book dry. My husband put together a Powerpoint presentation with scenes from the Civil War to present America set to the background music of Elvis’ American Trilogy. I rented a civil war costume and recruited one of the husbands who stands over 6 feet to wear a tux and top hat. As the members and their husbands arrived, we greeted them as Lincoln and Mary Todd.

The couple who followed us the following year quickly announced not to expect to see them wear coon skin hats when they reviewed The Gates of the Alamo by Stephen Harrigan. Members have also worn costumes for roles in the play we were reviewing and when we read The Life of Pi by Yarn Martel, the reviewer enlightened us on the various meanings of "pi" and even performed a magic trick. Leaders have used charts, games, quizzes, etc. to enhance our meetings. And occasionally, we have been served food that follows the theme of the book.

Sounds fun!  How about guest speakers?

Over the years we have had several guest speakers attend our meetings. They have included John Phillip Santos (Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation), Becky Crouch Patterson (Hondo, My Father), Paulette Jiles (Enemy Women), and Bob Flynn (North to Yesterday).

The first book read this year was Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky. The reviewer invited Hanna Davidson Pankowsky, author of East of the Storm: Outrunning the Holocaust in Russia, to be our guest speaker. None of us had read her book but we bought copies that evening, and discussed it at our last meeting. One of our members has become acquainted via email with Rita Golden Gelman (Tales of a Female Nomad). Gelman has expressed interest in attending one of our meetings, but has not made it to our part of Texas yet during her travels.  Although Cisneros (one of our favorite authors) lives in San Antonio, we have never been able to get her to attend one of our meetings.

Visiting with author John Phillip Santos (Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation) are (l. to r.) Suzanne Stewart, Barbara Higdon, Kay LePage and Lynnell Burkett.

Are there any events that stand out as being particularly memorable?

Over the years we have discovered that it is fun (and a great way to get to know each other better) to plan an outing or short trip visiting an area depicted in one of the books we have read. After reading True Women by Janice Woods Wendle, we spent a weekend in Seguin, Texas and toured the surrounding areas mentioned in the book. We were fortunate to be invited into the home of the author’s mother to view many of the items she has from her ancestors, including the table her father laid on while having his broken leg set. After reading Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, we visited Santa Fe, New Mexico, where we attended an opera.

Love is a Wild Assault
(Harriet Potter’s life story) by Elithe Hamilton Kirkland led to a trip to Jefferson, Texas. Highlights of the trip included attending a one-woman play on the life of Harriet Potter, touring Caddo Lake and visiting Potter’s point. We have also visited New York City (several members had children there aspiring to be actors) and this year made a trip to Rockport, TX to view the whooping cranes. Not all members are always able to go on each trip.

As a whole, our club is very close knit. We have weathered the illness and death of a charter member from cancer in 2001, the death of a member’s son, divorces, job losses, etc. Members have also provided meals for those recovering from surgery or a major illness.

Looking back over the years, are there particular themes, authors, or even books that you revisit? 

Almost all of our members have worked professionally at one time (some are still working) in the fields of education, business, architecture, journalism and real estate. Each of us has certain interests which are often reflected through our book recommendations. I feel that most of our members strive to select books that show good character development and have a compelling story.  Through Las Revistas I have been introduced to authors I would have probably never known. Because our members recommend so many good books each year, we have never reread any. Of course, this doesn’t include classics that many of us read while in school or college. For all the years I have been a member of Las Rivistas (I was not a charter member), the discussions have always been lively with most members participating.

A friend, who's been in the same book club for about a quarter century, shared with me recently that she thought the breadth of discussion has narrowed with the arrival of the internet, because people now tend to come to meetings having read reviews on the internet, and thus express a greater conformity of opinion. Do you think the wealth of online information helps or hinders good discussion?

Personally, I feel that the internet has made research much easier (especially for us who work) and has actually contributed to better informed discussions. Most of our members use the internet to become better informed if the subject of the book is centered on autism, Alzheimer’s, cloning, etc. As a result, one of the most thought provoking discussions we have had in recent years was triggered by reading Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, whose characters exist for one purpose---to have their organs harvested. A few of our members might read reviews, but the majority does not. Our discussions are centered on how each of us interprets the book and as one of our members so aptly stated, "we all read the same book, but hear differently based on our experiences". This to me sums up my main reason for belonging to a book club.

Thank you very much, Rosemary; I know I speak for all reading this when I wish you and Las Revistas many more happy years reading and talking together.

This interview first ran in July 2007

© October 2011.

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