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November 18, 2015

Lisa R. Cohen on Mother-Daughter Reading Groups and Great Discussion Books

Posted by emily

A few weeks ago, Carol spotted a Facebook post from Lisa R. Cohen --- a longtime network news producer/author, who is now at Columbia Journalism School --- about her mother-daughter book group. Mother-daughter groups are not as common as you’d think, and so we immediately seized the opportunity to find out more about this rare group dynamic. Below, Lisa answers our questions about the original incentive to start a group with local mothers and daughters, how the group functioned and evolved through the years, and how the mothers are faring now that their girls (young women?) are all away at college. You have an interesting book group history. You first started in a book group with your daughter, some of her friends and their mothers. Tell us about this.  

Lisa Cohen: Our book group is five teenage girls and their moms. My daughter had a very close group of girlfriends who've known each other mostly since kindergarten, then went through the K-8 school together. When they left middle school, they went to five different, intense high schools (Hunter, LaGuardia, Bronx Science, Eleanor Roosevelt and Brooklyn Tech). One of the moms --- who's a voracious reader (and in publishing) --- suggested we help them stay in touch with this mother-daughter book group. It worked for them, but it also worked for us moms.

RGG: How do you feel about the experience of being in a book group with your daughter?

LC: It’s funny --- I’ve known all these girls since they were practically babies. But when your child hits high school, suddenly she’s got a whole new social life, with kids you don’t know and aren’t really going to get to know; they’re a blur, off and running. Nor do you really spend time with their parents. So your teen has a much more separate life. At book club, we got to spend rare time together, talking, sharing a meal and laughing a lot.  I got to see a side of her --- thoughtful, at times even profound --- that I didn’t get the chance to see a lot elsewhere. And not just her, of course. All these girls were so articulate, so full of insight --- it was really remarkable. It was a special time. Of course, then there were the times my daughter hadn’t read the book….

RGG: Through the years what did you read with the girls? Were you reading YA or adult titles? Were any discussions particularly memorable?

LC: We read a real cross section, from YA like THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER to classics like A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN and BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S to contemporary adult like WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES and ZEITOUN.

RGG: How has being in a book group helped your daughters stay in touch that they may not have done otherwise once they were in different schools?

LC: Eventually, as freshman year progressed, they each fell into a new social group, and while they stayed in touch on social media and saw each other occasionally, there’s no doubt they would have drifted further apart without book club. It was a touchstone, and we tried to make it the case whether or not they’d kept up with the reading.

RGG: What was the last book you read together? Can you share some thoughts on that?

LC: Our last full book group was a weekend away in the Poconos at the weekend home of one of the families. I attached some pictures. It was August, just before they all scattered to the winds [at their various colleges] --- Pennsylvania, Ohio, Massachusetts --- not too far, but far enough to preclude an ongoing book club. We thought it fitting to read a book that was in the zeitgeist and also a throwback. So we read Harper’s Lee GO SET A WATCHMAN. The night we arrived, we also watched the original To Kill a Mockingbird film together. Discussing the book was a terrific way to mark the end of our regular get-togethers. There were great differences of opinion along a spectrum.

RGG: You mentioned the moms are going to continue the book group on their own. What are you reading this month? Do you select each month, or what do you do?

LC: We had one meeting and discussed a two-fer: DEPT. OF SPECULATION and REBECCA. Quite the disparate combo. There was also a weekend moms getaway to Kripalu, the meditation and yoga retreat, and a few other social outings.

RGG: Do you have preferred genres?

LC: We really don’t --- we try to trade off so some faves are honored even if others aren’t that interested. I myself tend toward a great yarn that’s also uplifting material to weave into the girls’ moral fabric...without being CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE TEENAGE SOUL.

RGG: What are three books that you have read with your group that you think provided the best discussion? Were these also your favorite books?

LC: I’d have to put THE FAULT IN OUR STARS right up there as answers to both these questions. We were all over the place on this one, lots of conversation about all kinds of topics both on course and wildly off course. At one point the father and brother of the house came upon us all in tears.

WINTER’S BONE led to a terrific conversation about women and their limited options in some cultures. Then we watched the movie and the girls found out Jennifer Lawrence kicked ass well before Hunger Games.

ZEITOUN was a spirited discussion because some of us weren’t fans. So it wouldn’t go on the favorite list. I’d probably put THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME as the third. It was one of my personal favorites --- perfect blend of great yarn that’s also uplifting material to weave into the girls’ moral fabric! Whenever there were themes of tolerance or a chance to live in the shoes of “others,” it was a good day. But really so many of them were unexpectedly fabulous gems.

RGG: Are you good at staying on topic, or does the conversation drift?

LC: We start on the book, go around the room, state likes/dislikes, cite passages. One mom, Rita Wolf, is a British actress (My Beautiful Laundrette, Coronation Street), and she is usually tasked to read a few favorite selected sections. Then, if all goes well, the conversation drifts.

RGG: Have you met since your daughters left for school? If so, how was this meeting different?

LC: It was lovely, but different. We of course talked non-stop about the girls’ new adventures at college, comparing notes. My fellow moms are all empty nesters now; I still have one at home. They’re definitely adjusting in a different way than I am. We planned our next book group meeting for Thanksgiving break and hope a few of the girls will join. We’re reading Edith Wharton’s HOUSE OF MIRTH.