By JoAnn Jones
Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Not several women who have belonged to a book club since 1986.
The first book they read was Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse,” a stream-of- consciousness novel in which more than half the action takes place in the characters’ heads.
“Virginia Woolf’s writing is very difficult,” said Katie Kane Shipka of Austintown, one of the book club’s founding members. “My daughter had been assigned to read it in a high school honors class, but it was too advanced.”
Shipka herself was an elementary teacher and then worked in a medical library.
So Shipka and Patty Augustine of New Middletown, who was a librarian at Northside Medical Center, along with a few others who worked in the medical libraries for Forum Health, decided to tackle the book.
Soon they were joined by Elizabeth Ford of Poland, a Westminster College professor, and her aunt Marianne Morano, a Boardman homemaker.
Ford’s cousin Nancy Bare of Canfield joined the club in 1998.
Other members — Fran Lynn-Into and Carol Ostheimer of Youngstown; Rose Guerrieri of Newton Falls; Mandy Medvin of New Wilmington, Pa.; and Deborah Mitchell of Poland — have joined the group, which reads books “you wouldn’t normally pick off the shelf,” Shipka said.
About half of the 10 members are retired, and they meet at members’ homes, usually on a Friday evening. Once in a while, they’ll meet in a restaurant on a Saturday.
And though their book club doesn’t have a name, they sometimes refer to themselves as the “bookies” when they email back and forth, said Ford, known as Betty.
The women have read a variety of books over the past 27 years since that difficult first novel of Woolf’s, including fiction, nonfiction, prize winners and more obscure books, according to Ford. And they read the books for different reasons.
“We read ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ by J.D. Salinger,” Ford said. “We had all read this as teens and we wanted a fresh view.”
“We talked about Holden Caulfield’s New York City experiences,” Shipka added. “How did he travel without fear?”
The group also read Leo Tolstoy’s classic “Anna Karenina” twice — but for a different reason.
“We forgot we read it,” Ford said with a smile, “and Aunt Mae-Mae [Morano] kept saying, ‘I think we read this.’”
“When we realized we had read it,” Bare said, “Aunt Mae-Mae said: ‘I told you so. Why didn’t you listen to me?’”
The 86-year-old Morano, whom the entire group affectionately calls “Aunt Mae-Mae,” is now a resident of Shepherd of the Valley in Poland, but that doesn’t keep her from continuing to read the books that the club reads.
“When we moved her in,” Ford said, “I found a book that she had.” It was “My Brother’s Keeper” by Marcia Davenport. The members all read it, and Morano hosted the club Jan. 11 at Shepherd of the Valley to discuss the book.
The group also reads young adult literature, such as John Green’s award-winning “The Fault in Our Stars,” a novel about two teenagers with cancer. Suzanne Collins’ science fiction trilogy, “The Hunger Games,” also is on the list of books they have read.
“We reach out and try to diversify,” said Shipka about the club’s selections. “We try to bring things to the book club.”
Not only do the women read difficult and thought-provoking books, but they also incorporate other activities into their meetings to make the books more memorable.
“Our original book club started,” Augustine said, “and then morphed into what we are now.”
“We read “Memoirs of a Geisha,” and there was an art professor at Westminster who had lived in Japan who came to talk at our meeting,” Ford said. “The book wasn’t very good, but the kimonos she brought were great.”
“We tried walking around in geisha girls’ shoes,” Bare added, “but that was very difficult.”
Shipka said that on the 90th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, she asked everyone to read a different book on the Titanic and give a review of it.
“I read about the food,” she said. “Things we’re supposed to eat that are good for us like oatmeal and whole wheat — that’s what they served the poor on the ship. All the rich people got foods that were very fatty.”
Augustine said the club brought in a special guest whose mother had been on the Titanic.
“Her name was Mary Kerola, and she was from Lebanon,” Augustine said. “She had come to America and had left her daughters at Christ Mission when she had to return to Lebanon when her son was ill.”
A very special event for the group occurred when Guerrieri asked them to read journalist Tim Russert’s “Wisdom of Our Fathers.” The book is a compilation of letters from sons and daughters about their fathers.
“She told us there would be a surprise about the book,” Bare said. “But she didn’t tell us her husband and son were in it. Her son Vince had written a letter about his father, Chuck. It was special to have that personal connection.”
Members of the club said they usually don’t choose books that are new because they’re too hard to get or books such as “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which was the on the best-seller list last summer.
“We would have had a good time trashing it,” said Mitchell of the “Fifty Shades” trilogy. She is the club’s newest member and a professor of English and film study at Westminster College.
“Anything that involves duct tape,” Ford added, “I don’t want to read it.”
Mitchell, who joined two years ago, said she enjoys hearing about the club’s past.
“One of the great things about being new is hearing all their stories,” she said.
To preserve that past, the group keeps a scrapbook of meetings that tells about the book discussion, shows a photo of the book’s cover and records the attendance of members. Recording in the book, which has been completed through May, is a task not all the members enjoy.
“You hate to get the book,” Augustine said, “but you don’t want to get caught not doing it.”
Ford, however, likes reminiscing about the club’s early days when members look at what they’ve recorded in their scrapbook.
“It was when we were 26 and really beautiful,” she said with a laugh.