Good books, good friends, and wine

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By Michelle Dybal

Contributing Reporter

They gathered in the warmth of a River Forest living room on a snowy mid-January evening. A feast of food and drink, accented with space-themed décor, welcomed the group for their monthly book club meeting. The 10 women who make up the group, primarily River Forest residents, have met regularly for more than 30 years. And to keep things interesting, they go on a trip each September, inspired by one of the books. They also reserve January for a "couples" book and meet-up. But this January was even more special. The author of the New York Times bestseller, Rocket Men, accepted their invitation to attend.

"I can't accept every invitation I get, but I like to take those that seem very interested and are enthusiastic," author Robert Kurson said. "It's a wonderful kind of symbiosis because they get to talk to the author of the book, but I get to hear what moved them and what's important to them about my writing and my choices, so it's very helpful."

The Book Club's relationship with Kurson started a couple of years ago.

"We read the bestseller Shadow Divers [by Kurson], and I noticed that the author was from the Chicago area, so I found his email and invited him and his wife to come to our book club," said Elizabeth Bach, a member since 1987. "To our delight, he agreed to come and brought his lovely wife, Amy, and their son Will came too since their babysitter had bailed on them. It was a horrible snowy evening, and they drove from the North Shore."

History repeated itself and it snowed when the group met this month to discuss the nonfiction book subtitled, "The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man's First Journey to the Moon." Amy, a lawyer, came, wearing a space-themed scarf with twinkling stars, and so did Will, a middle-schooler, because he had so much fun last time.

The Book Club selects their reads a year in advance. Knowing this was on their calendar, the group attended the release of Rocket Men last April at the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI), where Kurson led a panel discussion with all three Apollo 8 astronauts — Jim Lovell, Frank Borman and Bill Anders. The location was especially significant to Kurson.

While visiting the MSI about 3½ years ago, Kurson couldn't find his way out, which he calls "one of the great pleasures of that museum," and wandered into the Henry Crown Space Center and saw the Apollo 8 space module for the first time. He found a plaque that read, "This is the Command Module for Apollo 8 which made mankind's first journey ever to the moon."

"Something was spectacular about this," he explained. "What that card was saying was, 'This was the first time human beings had ever left home.' That's what it really meant, and the first time we had ever arrived in a new world. That seemed Homeric to me — a real odyssey. I raced home and started to research and in 20 minutes I was looking at the single greatest space story."

Kurson told the Book Club of his three-year journey from research to writing to publication, including many days with the astronauts and their wives. The women were as courageous as the men, he said, and his "eyes were opened to it." It was a "happy accident," he added, that Rocket Men was published in Apollo 8's 50th anniversary year, 2018.

Celebrating 34 years together, the book club has only one original member, but most have been around from early on. They met through a new-mom parenting group, PACES — Parent & Child Education Society.

"We got tired of talking about children, so we said, 'Let's start a book club,'" recalled Nancy Blecher, original member from Oak Park. "We started reading books and getting together. … All of us have children the exact same age (34). We've all gone through grade school, junior high, the college things, some marriages and babies."

Bach said they've shared "the circle of life, all made better by good books, good friends and wine."

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