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Past and present officers of the Review Book Club of Chattanooga include, from left, Frances Smith, Ann Walldorf and Mary Helms. Staff photo by Mark Kennedy

On the second Tuesday of each month, 42 women gather at noon at the Fairyland Club on Lookout Mountain to keep a century-old tradition.

The women of the Review Book Club of Chattanooga are quick to disclose an irony about their group. The first rule of book club, they say, is "never review a book."

Through close to 1,200 monthly meetings across almost 100 years, Review Book Club members have eschewed the traditional book-club format of reading a book together and then gathering to share impressions. Instead, the Review Book Club is actually a book exchange group that prioritizes guest speakers and female companionship.

Oh, and lunch.

A slate of books is chosen for the year, and each month the members swap titles. It's so much more efficient, they say, than buying 42 copies of 12 different titles.

Books on the list are curated by a committee. About half are fiction, half are non-fiction. Titles on last year's list included "Finding Dorothy" by Elizabeth Letts and "Songs of America" by Chattanooga favorite-son author Jon Meacham and Tim McGraw.

The monthly book hand-offs are perfunctory, members say.

"The main discussion we have on books is: Did you read it? Did you like it?" said Frances Smith, who describes herself as one of the most senior members of a group whose youngest members are in their mid-60s.

Although the club now includes women from around Chattanooga, it started as a small circle of Lookout Mountain women in the fall of 1921, members said.

Ann Walldorf, a past president of the club, said that years ago she had tea with an early member of the Review Book Club who said that during the Great Depression the club provided a way for women to get extra mileage out of their books.

"She said during the Depression they really didn't have a lot of money, nor did they have a lot of books available," said Walldorf. "They would get together, and they would bring their cucumber sandwiches and their tea, and they would have lunch and talk about what was going on the city."

Then, they would swap books.

Members said the monthly book club meetings follow a pattern that begins at noon.

Explained current club president Mary Helms: "We open the meeting [and] have a blessing. Lunch is served. Then, around the time we are enjoying dessert, we will stop talking and have a business meeting.

"After that, we have the minutes and treasurer's report. Then the speaker will be introduced, and we enjoy the speaker. Then we open to questions and then the meeting is adjourned."

Recent programs have ranged from an expert on the 1964 federal court trial of Jimmy Hoffa here to a cooking demonstration involving chef salads and olive oil.

Membership in the Review Book Club is strictly capped at 42, the number that will fit comfortably in the Fairyland Club room where the meetings happen. There is a waiting list for membership, which is typically activated when a member dies.

Rules of the club are strict. For example, if a member fails to bring a book back to a club meeting, she faces a fine. And if a member doesn't notify the group of a meeting absence several days in advance, she will still be charged for lunch.

Walldorf said a longtime book club member once explained to her that the club's strict rules were grounded in a tradition of good manners. "We're going to teach them what their momma hasn't," the member explained to Walldorf.

There is some talk inside the group about whether the club can live on indefinitely given the advancing age of members. Some think that attracting younger women is, and will continue to be, difficult. But as long as there is a waiting list, perhaps there is no reason to panic.

Anyway, there's always a fall-back option: opening up membership to men.

Um, no.

"We are not thinking about admitting men," Helms said with a smile. "That has not come up."

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com.

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