It's a Wednesday night at Freeport Memorial Library, and spirited conversation and laughter are emanating from a small meeting room on the second floor.
Seated around a table, members of the Soul With Heart Book Club are discussing Lawrence Hill's novel "Someone Knows My Name," about a woman kidnapped as a child from Africa and enslaved in South Carolina until she escapes to Manhattan -- and the twists and turns her life takes from there.
"What do you think the title means?" book club organizer Ronnie Tiffany asks.
Without missing a beat, the group dives in, flipping through pages and reading highlighted passages. Before long, they're taking turns sharing their own stories and life experiences. And so it goes for the next hour and a half, much as it has since the club began in 2001.
Exploring all cultures
Tiffany, a reference librarian, started Soul With Heart after library director Dave Opatow put her in charge of the African-American collection.
The club primarily focuses on works by African-American authors but also explores writers from other cultures. "I'd never done a book club before," Tiffany says. "I had no expectations, but this has been a gift to me."
That's because of the women (and sometimes men, too) who've come one Wednesday night a month for the past nine years. Six came to the first meeting. Over the years, as few as two and as many as 14 have added their voices, says Tiffany, who does everything from choosing the books to setting up refreshments on meeting night.
A core group of eight are regulars -- women in their early 30s to late 70s from different racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds who share a love of reading. "They are all bright, they have a sense of humor, and they are so gracious," Tiffany adds. "None of them is shy. They all talk from the heart."
Longtime community activist and Freeport resident Eileen Weaver, a spry woman in her 70s, was among the first to join. She discovered the club while volunteering as a reading tutor at the library. Like the other members, Weaver says she enjoys exploring a diversity of literary genres and writers.
"Most of us do general book reading of all types of authors," says Weaver, who, like most women in the group, is African-American. "This has led me to the works of people who have written about us - by us and others -- that I might not have known about."
JoAnn Beauford, a New York City science teacher and Freeport resident, was looking for a way to fill her evenings after her youngest child left for college. She wanted something more than "an average, run-of-the-mill" book club.
"We've read African-American authors, Indian authors, Muslim authors . . . authors of all different cultures and different ethnicities," says Beauford, 58, who is Italian-American and whose husband, James, 65, is African-American. "The literature is so rich and . . . takes you inside of a place you haven't been before."
Six years later, her husband has retired, her daughter has finished school and moved back home, and she is still going, drawn each month, she says, by stimulating reading choices, camaraderie and conversation -- even when the book is panned by club members.
Full of personality and passion
Last fall, a friend asked Susan Cohen, 72, a mental health counselor from Lynbrook, to go with her to the group's discussion of "Cutting for Stone" by Abraham Verghese. Cohen says the discussion was lively and the women full of personality, intellect, passion and humor. "My friend never came back to the group, but I continued," she says.
Already in another book club reading works about Judaism and the Torah, Cohen, who is Jewish, says she was looking to expand her literary repertoire. "I wanted to learn about other cultures and literature that I might not readily be exposed to." The club, she said, "was opening up a whole world of literature to me. It's been a great experience."
Meta J. Mereday, a 40-something business development consultant and freelance writer from Baldwin, says she arrived at the book club about eight years ago, seeking dynamic discussions and a sense of community.
Admittedly, she barely cracks the covers of many of the books before the monthly meeting. "Most times when I go, I've only read 25 to 30 pages," she quips. "I generate my interest of the book by other members' perspectives. Sometimes, our conversations take on tangents far removed from the topic of the book, but the dialogue is always informative and often touching. We have been known to cry on occasion, but most often we laugh."
Initially, Hempstead resident Sandi Long-Belfon, an employee assistance coordinator with the Nassau County Sheriff's Department, wondered if she would feel like an outsider at a book club in Freeport. She soon found she had nothing to worry about. "They welcomed me, as they do anybody who likes to read."
Members make their share of suggestions for books to read. "That makes you really feel like you're a part of the group," says Long-Belfon, who chose "Someone Knows My Name" for the June meeting.
The book club takes a hiatus in July and August. It will resume Sept. 15 with "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot. But members won't wait till then to see each other. They're planning to meet at Beauford's house in August, each bringing a dish and a favorite poem from Lucille Clifton's "Blessing the Boats" to share.