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November 3, 2017

Hachette’s Sixth Annual Book Club Brunch


On Saturday, October 21st, booklovers and book club members from the New York City Tri-State area convened at Hachette’s sixth annual Book Club Brunch. The event was held at the New York Society for Ethical Culture in a beautiful, spacious room with plenty of comfy seats. Lucky for me, I was able to attend with my good friends and avid readers Cheryl, Mary, Matt and Vivian.

The day kicked off with a Narrative Nonfiction Panel focused on the hidden lives of women. The featured authors were Liza Mundy, author of CODE GIRLS, the story of a group of female cryptographers whose work played a crucial part in ending World War II; Meryl Gordon, author of BUNNY MELLON, a biography of the style icon and aristocrat who designed the White House Rose Garden and served as a living witness to much of 20th-century America’s politics, art and fashion; and Zach McDermott, whose memoir, GORILLA AND THE BIRD, explores his mother’s strength and support through his struggles with mental health. All three did a terrific job of explaining their fascinating main characters and how they exposed universal, yet deeply personal, aspects of the lives of women.

Of these three authors, I was most interested in Liza Mundy, who explained what her book was about and then how she conducted her research. Her stories were humorous, heartbreaking and shocking, as many of her subjects were in their 90s and had never spoken of their time serving the country. Many believed that they were still not allowed to discuss such things, and struggled with fears of getting in trouble or even being arrested. In addition to explaining the unique, and often troubling positions these women were placed in, Liza also shared more humorous stories. For example, one woman she interviewed was afraid to share her letters from the time, as she had been writing to multiple soldiers overseas (a practice encouraged at the time to boost morale).

I would be lying if I said that I knew the name Bunny Mellon before attending the Brunch, but I suspect that I will be researching her more in the coming weeks. Meryl Gordon explained that she had unprecedented access to her subject and learned more about the famous aristocrat than she ever imagined. Most interestingly, she found that the public’s view of her often conflicted with the truth in strange and often prejudiced ways. My friend Matt has been conducting a reading plan focused on the “peripheral Kennedys” and immediately added this book to his list.

Following the narrative nonfiction panel, the audience was split into two lunch groups. As part of the second group, I stayed in the theater to listen to author Madeline Miller discuss CIRCE with her editor, Lee Boudreaux. (Note: Her last book was THE SONG OF ACHILLES.) CIRCE does not release until April 2018, so all attendees were mailed an advance copy of the book ahead of the event. This meant that Madeline was speaking to an audience of people who had already read her book and were ripe with questions.

CIRCE revisits Greek mythology to tell the tale of the Odyssey, but from Circe’s point of view. As the daughter of one of the most powerful gods, Circe has the unique advantage of being able to meet and learn about all of the gods and goddesses and witness as their scandals, betrayals and unions guide the future of their world. Miller explained that she conducted a lot of research into both ancient Greece and ancient witchcraft, but that her main character still constantly surprised her.

Having read the book, I can say that it is a veritable “who’s who” of Greek mythology, but while Circe does embark on her own hero’s journey, the book remains wonderfully accessible and relatable. It was really fun to hear the questions from the audience and see which portions of the book interested them most. Many were intrigued by Circe’s journey as a mother, to which Miller stated, “I wanted #Circe's voice to be personal, but I wanted her to have a hero's journey...what can be more epic than parenting?”

After lunch, the entire audience reconvened for the Fiction panel. The featured authors were Betsy Carter, whose book, WE WERE STRANGERS ONCE, focuses on a tightknit group of immigrants living in 1930s Manhattan; Brendan Mathews, whose debut novel, THE WORLD OF TOMORROW, takes place over the course of one week as three Irish brothers reunite in jazz-era New York City; and Kimberla Lawson Roby, who is the author of a whopping 26 books, most famously the Curtis Black series, which centers on the life of a Reverend swayed by temptation.

Because the themes in their books are so similar, Betsy and Brendan kicked off the panel by discussing their research methods, with Brendan explaining that “research is seductive…you can spend months researching and never add a page to your book.” The two also agreed that editors are the backbone of publishing and shared many humorous stories about their editors calling them out when they don’t meet their full potential.

Kimberla talked about writing such a hugely successful series and what it means for her as an author. She explained that she does feel a certain loyalty to her readers, but ultimately, she must let her characters go down whichever path is most natural for them. She also shared a beautiful story about a previous book event where she announced that her series would soon be ending. A woman in the front row burst into tears and explained that Kimberla’s series had created a deep bond between her and her mother. It was really something to hear about books affecting readers so deeply, and added a new layer of warmth and appreciation to the day.

For the final event of the day, we were joined by literary superstar Emma Donoghue, who wrote favorite ROOM as well as THE WONDER. I absolutely loved ROOM so I was eager to hear Emma speak, and I can happily report that she did not disappoint. Emma speaks a mile a minute and had tons of interesting stories to share, both about writing her books and adapting them for the screen. I was so captivated by Emma that I barely took any notes during her session, but I will definitely be checking out THE WONDER very soon.

All in all, Hachette’s Book Club Brunch was a really fun day of books, authors and readers. I added several new books to my list and came away with an even deeper appreciation for CIRCE, which I read weeks before the event. I am sure that I am not alone when I say that I am eagerly anticipating their seventh event next year!