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August 5, 2002

Book club brings women employees together

By Eric Rangus

The margarita pitcher was drained before it even had time to sweat.

Perhaps it was the excitement that goes with the end of a workday. Maybe it was the joy of getting together with a group of friends. Or it could’ve been the rather stifling heat that accompanies the last week of July in Atlanta.

Most likely, though, it was all of the above.

“Our official name is the Emory Women’s Center Book Club,” said Catherine Howett Smith, associate director of the Carlos Museum.

“When we started meeting here,” she continued, indicating with a wave of her hand the porch of the downtown Decatur Mexican restaurant where she and five other Emory women sat, “we started calling ourselves the Raging Readers. That became the Raging Women, depending on how we felt,” she laughed.

Actually, there wasn’t a lot of rage on the afternoon of July 30, the date of the latest meeting of the Women’s Center Book Club, one of the more, ahem, novel groups on campus.

The club owes its creation in part to a wide love of books among several Emory employees as well as a talent for networking and a desire to inject a bit social interaction into what can be a very busy worklife. It all began in June 2000 when Howett Smith called her friend Ali Crown, director of the Emory Women’s Center.

“I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be good if we did a book club?’” Howett Smith said. Crown agreed. Soon they asked friends Marion Dearing from the president’s office and Kelly Turney, then assistant director of Equal Opportunity Programs, to join them. More feelers were sent out to more campus acquaintances, and soon the Emory Women’s Center Book Club was born.

In the interest of keeping the club intimate, membership was capped at 10. Nine women now take part: Crown, Howett Smith, Dearing, Deb Floyd (law school), Jari Grimm (Board of Trustees office), Marcia Rafig (food services), Tricia Stultz (University secretary’s office), Amy Wheeler (law school) and Bridgette Young (religious life). Turney, who now works in Massachusetts, still keeps up and e-mails her comments, which are read to the group.

Crown, Howett Smith, Dearing, Floyd, Wheeler and Young all attended the latest meeting, which—in between discussion and the occasional burrito bite or tortilla chip—ran a little over 90 minutes. During the academic year, the club meets in the Women’s Center, but over the summer, when things are less hectic, they go on the road.

“We’ve all been in book clubs that were too much like school,” Howett Smith said. “There is a proctor, and it’s very formal. We didn’t want this club to be that way.”
It isn’t.

Rhetoric bounces around the table like a racquetball, as everyone tosses out comments. Much of the discussion, of course, surrounds the assigned books (“The writing is some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen,” Crown said of one book), but as they are among friends—and several miles off campus—the subject matter often veers into the unmentionable. Precisely how unmentionable is directly related to the volume of laughter emanating from the table.

“It’s very informal,” Crown said, echoing Howett Smith. “Even the Type As become Type Bs in this group.”

It’s that camaraderie that led Young to join.

“I also was really drawn to its diversity,” she said. Young, associate dean of the Chapel and Religious Life, added that another book club she belongs to is made up exclusively of African American, Christian women. While the Women’s Center Book Club is all female, it varies by age, race and religion.

In all, the book club has discussed 24 novels, and its pending list is nearly twice that long.

This month’s selections were The Last Report on the Miracles at No Horse by Louise Erdrich and Bee Season by Myla Goldberg.

Erdrich’s book is the story of a woman who takes up the identity of a deceased priest on the Ojibwa reservation in North Dakota and the complications that arise. Bee Season, Goldberg’s first novel, is the story of a 9-year-old girl whose life changes after she takes first prize in a school spelling bee.

New books are chosen pretty much at random although word of mouth and author familiarity certainly play roles. It isn’t limited to women authors either, although the books written by male authors—Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Rick Bragg’s All Over But the Shoutin’—have women-centered characters. The Book of Ruth, a well-regarded 1996 novel by Jane Hamilton, is the club’s selection for August.

“Hopefully this will get people to start other book clubs,” said Floyd. “Plus this gives us a chance to all get together, which can be difficult when we’re all so busy on campus.”