book club

Early on a Thursday evening, Porkchop stood anxious watch at the door. The low-slung bulldog’s whole body quivered in anticipation, as his barks announced arrivals and his nose strained to inspect their accompanying culinary offerings. Toddler Preston stood clutching his Thomas train, smiling shyly through rounds of hellos before happily choosing his cookie reward and heading upstairs with Daddy. The dining room table steadily filled with scones, wontons, veggies, brownies and more, as cries of “Did you finish?” and “What did you think?” filled the air. Dana Bloomburg’s gracious brick home on Shadowlawn Avenue soon held nine chatting women, and another evening of Books with Buzz had begun.

"Books With Buzz" is the name of the Mt. Lebanon Junior Womens Club's bimonthly book club. Book club members suggest titles for reading, which are then listed on a Facebook page and voted on by MLJWC members. Typical attendance at the meetings is about a dozen, but when hot titles are on the agenda that number can double.
“Books With Buzz” is the name of the Mt. Lebanon Junior Womens Club’s bimonthly book club. Book club members suggest titles for reading, which are then listed on a Facebook page and voted on by MLJWC members. Typical attendance at the meetings is about a dozen, but when hot titles are on the agenda that number can double.

“Books with Buzz” is the current theme of the decade-old book club offered by the Mt. Lebanon Junior Women’s Club, fast closing in on half a century of both social interaction for its members and service to the community at large. The book club is one of about 18 sub-groups within the 80-member organization, open to women across the South Hills. Past president Lisa Hills of Oakwood Drive in Jefferson Hills says women are encouraged to participate at the sub-group level “as a way of finding a niche and making closer connections not possible during the larger more business-like monthly meetings.” Bloomburg, the new MLJWC president, is following in the footsteps of at least three past MLJWC presidents who also belong to the book group.

Various sources peg the number of people in the U.S. who belong to book clubs at around five million, with the Pittsburgh area well represented. What gets read goes in all different directions. For Books with Buzz, the selections focus on “books you’ll be talking about with your friends, hearing about in the news, or are already dying to read.” Many groups map out a year’s worth of titles, but here the process is different. Members propose several options at each book club meeting. (There is one ironclad prohibition: no books about abused or dead kids.) Then those titles are put to a vote on a private Facebook page open to the entire MLJWC membership. The book with the most votes becomes the next meeting’s selection, and any MLJWC member is welcome to attend. The group meets every other month to ensure members have enough time to vote and read the book.

A typical meeting draws eight to 12 participants, though those numbers can spike depending on a given title—Fifty Shades of Grey, anyone? Attendance more than doubled for that series. Long-time book club attendee and past MLJWC president Caroline Lascek, Seneca Drive, claims James’ trilogy was chosen as much to make her blush as it was for the amount of buzz it generated. “I had to constantly hide my head in my turtleneck during those discussions.”

Club members Missy Timko, Lisa Salomon and Jennifer Swango clearly can't believe it was the butler all along.
Club members Missy Timko, Lisa Salomon and Jennifer Swango clearly can’t believe it was the butler all along.

Everyone tries to finish the book, and the most conscientious show up with prepared questions and discussion points. There’s a whimsical “tie-in” each time to add to the ambience of the evening. For example, French food was on the menu for McLain’s The Paris Wife, while costumes enhanced the discussion of Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.

Jamie Hall, Bower Hill Road, says a favorite topic with the group is whether a particular book will become a movie, and if so, who should play the characters. In the case of books that have already been made into movies, the group sometimes goes together to see the film. Some of the most recent titles they have read and then viewed are Divergent, The Hunger Games and Gone Girl.

On the evening this writer visited, the title was The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. Set in 1922 in England, it is the story of an upper class mother-daughter duo forced to take in a young couple as boarders in order to afford to keep their house, when the men in the family are casualties of WWI. Rather than be a spoiler, suffice it to say that the story unfolds rather unexpectedly from there and does not wrap things up tidily. It also got an unexpected reaction from the book club.

In a very unusual turn, nobody had cared enough to finish the 500-plus-page book. Both Lascek and Katrina Kletzly, Jefferson Drive, said they had skipped ahead to read the ending and were just as frustrated with the plot and characters as those who quit early. Bloomburg was underwhelmed with some graphic descriptions along the way. The vague ending brought up a question of whether there was to be a sequel, which was deemed doubtful because the author’s other books are all stand-alone.

There was consternation over the rave reviews and recommendations at online sites such as Goodreads and Amazon, along with mirthful ribbing of the no-show who had urged its choice: “She didn’t come because it was such a stinker!”  This prompted a good-natured suggestion by Rachael Shaw, Hoodridge Drive: just as spoiler alerts have their place in book reviews, perhaps a “stinker alert” should be employed as well. All was not lost though, as the group seamlessly segued to discussing other books they were reading, and favorite authors/titles in general. The women had an easy rapport, clearly enjoying their night out and each other’s company.

Lauren Coulter of Gaylord Avenue in Dormont raved about Jonathan Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You. “I kept laughing out loud in the car, and my poor husband was trying to drive through an ice storm. He finally asked me to stop reading.” Bloomburg championed All Fall Down by Jennifer Weiner. All of Weiner’s books got a thumbs up; other highly praised authors were Neil Gaiman, Deborah Harkness, Liane Moriarty and Jodi Picoult.

When it came time to choose possible books for the next meeting, out came the smart phones for research. The clear front-runner was Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline; they also chose three alternatives for the entire MLJWC membership to vote on.

By that time, Porkchop had long since given up sniffing at plates. Conked out on the couch between Jennifer Swango, Glenrock Drive, Bethel Park, and Katie Graybill, Old Farm Road, his low snores testified to the previous two hours’ strenuous duties.

In addition to the literary discussion, child-related anecdotes, home remodeling recommendations and consideration of what to wear at the club’s upcoming fundraising gala rounded out the women’s conversation. Despite the disappointing book, the evening was a success.

Women interested in joining the MLJWC and participating in the book club or other sub-groups should visit In the meantime, try some of the books the club has read over the past few years: Happy Reading.

An Amateur’s Guide to the Pursuit of Happiness by Britt Reints
Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
Big Little Lies, The Husband’s Secret and What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
Freedom by Jonathan Frazen
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Juliet by Anne Fortier
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
Reconstructing Amelia: A Novel by Kimberly McCreight
The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan
Tell the Wolves I’m Home: A Novel by Carol Rifka Brunt
The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht
Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler
All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness
A Discovery of Witches
Shadow of Night
The Book of Life
Divergent Trilogy by Veronica Roth
Fifty Shades of Grey Trilogy by E.L. James
Fifty Shades of Grey
Fifty Shades Darker
Fifty Shades Freed
Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins
The Hunger Games
Catching Fire

Photography by George Mendel