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After 10 years, White Hall book club stronger than ever

Books and support bind neighbors together in Bernoudy Bookworms group

By Pat van den Beemt, pvdb@comcast.net

11:16 AM EDT, October 3, 2012

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After Anne Bishop's husband, Bob, died in April 2002, she told a friend that she was thinking of joining a book club so she'd have something to occupy her time.

That friend and neighbor, Pam Dudek, suggested they form their own book group instead. She created a flyer and put it in their neighbors' mailboxes up and down Bernoudy Road in White Hall.

Dudek hosted the first meeting of the Bernoudy Bookworms at her house. Ten women showed up and made a list of do's and don'ts for book selections. Don't choose self-help, political or religious books for the club to read. Do serve wine. Don't have more than 20 members. Do come to a meeting even if you haven't read the book.

Their first book choice was "Poisonwood Bible," by Barbara Kingsolver.

"We really wanted to offer a place to come together and enjoy one another's company," Dudek said. "Some people had given up reading because they got too busy. This book club gave them justification to read again."

On Sept. 19, the Bernoudy Bookworms held a party in Monkton to celebrate their 10th anniversary. Although some of the founding members have moved away, the club's original Bernoudy Road residents include Jeannie Beatty, Micki Fox, Chris Naylor, Nancy Stark and Deb Todd. It now has 15 members and, according to those original rules, can accept another five.

"Some of us only see each other at book club meetings; others have formed relationships beyond book club," Bishop said at the anniversary party. "We are a group of varied backgrounds, ages, stages in life and opinions, which bring lively discussion around our readings."

The group meets the third Wednesday of the month at members' homes. They've only missed two meetings in 10 years — once for a blizzard and once in the summer when everybody was away on vacation.

The books they've read range from mysteries, classics, biographies and bestsellers, to books with stories set during World War II, in foreign counties, in the past and in the future.

Each member puts her on spin on the meeting at her home. When they read "Water for Elephants," which takes place in a circus, Wanda Burnap, of Sparks, served cotton candy and peanuts. Betsy Ensor's Monkton house was lighted with candles and kerosene lanterns when they met to discuss "John Adams" and sat in front of the fireplace in her kitchen.

"I remember going to a meeting after we read 'Seabiscuit' and we were served these thin horse-shaped cookies, and I thought, 'I can't be in this club. I can't make cookies like this.' But it's such a great club. It's made me read things I never would have read," said Barb Poe, a former Jacksonville resident.

The group has also gone on book-inspired field trips. They've heard authors Ann Patchett and Geraldine Brooks speak locally and they've gone to movies based on their favorite books.

The members' ages range from 36 to 75. Bishop's daughter, Michelle Mapp, became a member and invited her friend, Erin Bichell to join.

Bichell said she was a little intimidated when she walked into her first book club and saw Anna Maria Storey, her English teacher from Notre Dame Preparatory School, sitting on a couch.

"I thought, 'Really? My English teacher'?" she said. "But I like the club and the unique opportunity to have the insight of wise women."

Another mother-daughter team is Barb Poe and her daughter, Allison Lowe. Allison also saw a familiar face at her first meeting: Betsy Ensor was her nursery school teacher at Chestnut Grove Child Development Center in Jacksonville.

Anne Bishop was the center's director for 18 years, and convinced teachers Ensor, Poe and Bonnie Busta to join the book club.

The club holds a Christmas dinner, complete with homemade eggnog, hosted by Donna Bambrick, of Monkton. One year, the women wrote poems that they read at the dinner.

After much discussion on what book to read next, the club decided on "In the Garden of the Beasts," a true story by Erik Larson set in pre-World War II Germany.

"We encourage others to start a book club," Bishop said. "We support friends and it gives us some time out from the ups and downs of daily life, as well as stretching our minds in our reading selections."