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March 4, 2008

From English Teacher to Book Group Facilitator

Posted by carol
I had the pleasure of meeting Esther Bushell last fall at a luncheon that was held for Alan Drew, the author of Gardens of Water. She told me that she was a longtime reader of both and I invited her to lunch at our offices where she shared stories of her role as a book group facilitator. Her keen knowledge of books --- and how to moderate discussions of them --- made me immediately invite her to blog for us. -- Carol Fitzgerald

Nobody ever says, "Hi, Esther. How are you?" Everyone does say,"Hi, Esther. What are you reading? What are you recommending?" For forty years, I was an English teacher in Greenwich, Connecticut, first at a junior high and then at Greenwich High. My students always associated me with grammar and literature, and to this day, they remember my phone calls to their homes when we studied nominative case pronouns. I would call and say, "Is this Susan?"and Susan was expected to say,"This is she," or "It is I." The kids in this town also knew that I battled to include To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, Much Ado about Nothing, In Cold Blood, Ragtime, Montana 1948, and A Lesson Before Dying into the schools' curriculum.

As I approached retirement, my adult students, many of whom were in book groups, would call to ask me to lead a book group discussion about The Catcher in the Rye. About that same time, a young woman from the dot com industry, Jenny Lawton, bought an independent bookstore, Just Books, in Old Greenwich, and we became fast friends. The confluence of readers going to Just Books to buy books that I was recommending prompted Jenny to suggest that I offer a series of book discussions about the classics, on a subscription basis. Thirteen people signed up to meet six times a year, in the evenings, to discuss Hamlet, The Canterbury Tales, and other great works of literature. In November of 2003, I attended the tenth Greenwich High school reunion of the Class of '93, and there I reconnected (in the ladies' room) with Avideh Bashirrad, a marketing manager at the Random House Publishing Group. When I told Avideh that I was leading some book groups, she invited me in to lunch and talk with her --- and to her, too, I attribute many of my ideas for expansion and certainly steady, loyal support and exposure.

Now, of course, I lead many (if I counted, I'd have a heart attack!) book groups, some of a monthly basis, some on a bimonthly schedule, and some just once or twice a year. I also lead discussions at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Riverside, at the First Presbyterian Church in Greenwich, and last year, I led a series for Jewish Family Services of Greenwich.

Research and discussions with Avideh and Russell Perreault at Vintage/Anchor motivated me to begin a modified GREENWICH READS! In the fall of 2006, Russell expedited the appearance of Julie Otsuka, author of When the Emperor Was Divine, to speak at the Perrot Library in Old Greenwich. Just Books, Too, sold books at the event, and we deemed it a success for the community. Now I am beginning to work on a similar event for the fall of 2008.

One of the popular events that I love to do are birthday parties. I've done several adult birthday parties where I come in to discuss books, suggest titles for their book groups, and then answer questions. I attend these events armed with bibliographies and lists!

Of particular interest to me now is the burgeoning interest in couples' book groups. This is a tough audience: even though we'd like to think that literary fiction is not necessarily gender specific, we do know that men and women often are attracted to very different books. Some successes with couples' book groups have included To Kill a Mockingbird/In Cold Blood; five tales about love and marriage from The Canterbury Tales, and T.C. Boyle's, Tortilla Curtain.

I am paid per person. When I first started out, I would be paid at the end of every discussion. Now I am paid either once or twice a year, still per person, but it means that if someone doesn't show up for a discussion, I am not financially penalized. After all, my preparation is for everyone.

People know me as the book person, and I love my new identity and my second career. In addition to reading significant books, many in galley form sent by publishers, I've also made many new, interesting friends. My world has expanded and my life is full of reading adventures.

What am I recommending? A Pigeon and a Boy by Meir Shalev and Evan Fallenberg Shalev; Before I Die by Jenny Downham; Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins; Gardens of Water by Alan Drew; and Old Filth by Jane Gardam.