Saturday, October 18, 2008

Claremont Book Group -- 90 years old and still going strong

The Claremont Book Club must certainly be one of the oldest book groups in the nation: it has been in continuous existence for 90 years.

Every month, women who live within the gates of the Claremont residential section of Berkeley -- once the most exclusive area in the East Bay -- gather to hear authors talk or to exchange books. Over the years the Claremont Book Group has heard from some of the nation’s most distinguished authors and artists.

The group today holds on to some vestiges of its once-elite roots, but with a Berkeley twist. To be a member, you must live within a 10-block area that is enclosed by brick pillars. The area, adjacent to the Claremont Hotel, was developed in 1905 by the real estate group Mason McDuffie and is home to houses designed by Julia Morgan, John Hudson Thomas and other established architects. These are grand and stately mansions with beveled glass, stucco fronts and price tags topping $2 million.

The 44 members and 20 associates of the Claremont Book Group drink tea and coffee poured from sterling silver tea sets and eat heart healthy salads and lunch dishes, much like their forebears. But the house where I attended Thursday’s luncheon had an Obama sign prominently displayed on its front lawn, just like many of its neighboring homes. So while members of the book club may live in elegant houses reminiscent of another era, many of them are resolutely liberal.

I have heard about the Claremont Book Group for years, but since I don’t live within the gates of the Claremont I am not eligible to be a member. I was invited as a guest on Oct. 16 to hear two authors, Peggy Orenstein, a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and the author of the memoir Waiting for Daisy, and Sylvia Brownrigg, a novelist with two books coming out in 2008 – The Delivery Room and Morality Tale, set in the nearby Elmwood neighborhood of Berkeley. It was fun to listen to these engaging authors talk about their lives and work while sitting in an elegant living room sipping tea out of a china cup. (And no one seemed to mind when I knocked over a glass of ice water on the Oriental carpet.)

Orenstein and Brownrigg met years ago at a writing group and are now close friends. In a bizarre twist, they and other members of the group found they were writing about similar themes – maternal loss and grief. Orenstein joined the group after suffering numerous miscarriages and round after round of in vitro fertilization treatments. Brownrigg’s second child had been born prematurely and only lived an hour. Another member of the writing group was dealing with the loss of a child to SIDS. “We were all contending with age and grieving and changes of life,” Orenstein explained. “We wanted to break silences and address things people don’t talk about.”

Orenstein had been a successful journalist for years and had published two books before she began working on Waiting for Daisy. But she never felt like a true writer, she said, until she began writing in the first person about her own personal tragedies. She was in Japan on a fellowship when she discovered she was pregnant. Her husband, the filmmaker Steven Okazaki, was back in Berkeley. Joy quickly turned to grief when Orenstein miscarried. Since she was so far from home and couldn’t communicate well in Japanese, Orenstein dealt with her sorrow by writing. She found the writing cathartic, as it helped her cope and make sense of the chaos she felt inside. Years later, Orenstein turned her jottings into a book.

Brownrigg, who is married to Sedge Thomson, the host of the radio show West Coast Live, grew up in Los Altos but lived in London for many years. The Delivery Room is about a therapist and her patients, one of whom is dealing with maternal loss. Morality Tale is set near the area of the Claremont Book Group – but outside its gates – and is a lighter, more humorous book about marriage. Brownrigg will be reading at Mrs. Dalloway’s bookstore on College Avenue in Berkeley at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday Nov. 13th.

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