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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