A novel online book club raises money for Hope charity

A novel online book club where readers meet their favourite authors is raising funds for the Hope Foundation. Helen O’Callaghan zooms in
A novel online book club raises money for Hope charity

Hope Foundation Zoom book club, above is a screen shot of Donal Ryan’s book club session.

A dark Wednesday evening, pre-Halloween, and 39 women are gathered for the Hope Foundation’s Zoom book club.

“We’re getting used to seeing each other in squares,” says the Charlotte Nagle, charity’s communication manager, who hosts the live interactive monthly meetings, which started in July and which feature something “a bit special”: the author of the chosen book also attends.

“Has anybody got a beverage with them and would like to do a little cheers?” Charlotte asks, lifting her glass of wine to the screen, before introducing the book, Oh My God, What a Complete Aisling, and its authors Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen.

Sarah — Halloween decorations pinned on the wall behind her — explains she had root canal treatment earlier and got an anaesthetic. “I’m not having a stroke,” she says. Emer’s window is open behind her so her cat, Pip, can come and go rather than parade across the screen.

The girls get started, talking about how Aisling originated on hung-over Saturdays sitting under a blanket watching reality TV, how they came up with hundreds of Aisling-isms — ‘Aisling would always have a Tesco bag for life’, ‘Aisling would never hoover up a 2c coin’ — eventually collected on a dedicated Facebook page.

Authors Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen on Zoom. 
Authors Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen on Zoom. 

Charlotte notices a question coming in: “Will I ask it for you – or will I un-mute you?” Someone wants to know what’s the authors’ favourite Aisling-ism and how many Orla Kiely bags does Aisling have? The mood’s lively, the banter flowing like the wine amid invariable tiny technical glitches — ‘is Sarah freezing or is that the root canal?’

When Charlotte first came up with the idea of a Zoom book club as a fundraiser – in a year when Covid-19 shut down traditional fundraising events and charity donations plummeted — she wanted to “give something back to people”. Plus it would be a way of kick-starting her own reading (“I haven’t read as much since smart-phones came along”).

She approached author Róisín Meaney who drew up a list of 12 writers. Would they each be happy to do one Zoom meeting and talk about their book? Yes, they would. So far Liz Nugent, Donal Ryan, and Felicity Hayes-McCoy have been in, Róisín Meaney’s up next with I t’s That Time of Year and Sheila O’Flanagan’s in for December with The Women Who Ran Away.

Charlotte Nagle in Kolkata in 2019. 
Charlotte Nagle in Kolkata in 2019. 

Róisín’s here tonight to hear the Aisling authors. She was Emer’s teacher, she reveals — “yes, in junior infants!” Is that a ginger cat on Róisín’s lap? It is — among other four-legged presences. “Oh, Avril has a lovely dog!” says Emer. “Who’s your friend?” Charlotte asks Celbridge-based Avril, who is hugging close an adorable white fluffy dog. She introduces Darcy, very scared because of fireworks outside.

“I’m now showing off my dog,” says another participant. “Who’s this wonderful boy?” asks Charlotte. It is Shadow, a rescue collie, looking pleased and dangling a sock from his mouth.

“We’re noticing on Zoom it’s perfectly normal to be on camera and a child or animal walks past you. It’s accepted: this is literally into our homes, where we have our pets, our kids, where it all happens. It all adds to the connectivity,” says Charlotte, when we chat after the meeting.

Annette Kearney, a Limerick-based grandmother whose daughter-in-law signed her up for the club after restrictions shut down her ICA book club, loves how homely it all is. “I like that you see a little portion of people’s homes — photos on the mantelpiece, a bunch of flowers on the table. It takes the sterile look off.”

Rose Servitova loves the club's informality. 
Rose Servitova loves the club's informality. 

Author Rose Servitova ( The Watsons) also loves the club’s informality. “I’m quite shy. In a room of people I don’t know, I’m not the best mixer. Here you can sit in your pyjamas with your cup of coffee, listen to your favourite author. It’s that intimate.” For Rose, it’s “one of the nicest things that can happen in a month”, a way to combat Covid-19-induced isolation. “I can meet people from Donegal, Cork — it’s a lovely way of breaking the 5km rule.”

Charlotte wishes Sheila — on tonight from Florida — the best for the US election the following week. Sheila’s praying for a Biden win. “I think he’s got a good shot,” she says. Someone wonders how Aisling would vote. “She’d be a Biden girl through and through,” both authors agree.

As the discussion meanders happily, organically, from the authors’ process to the shenanigans of pets and the vagaries of politics, someone always focuses us back to what’s important — the book. “Do I get a say in the casting [for the movie],” someone says. “You’ve got a lovely group of ladies here if you want extras,” says another.

The Zoom book club meetings are a break from the news, really uplifting, says Charlotte. And Hope Foundation, which delivers programmes in India, has had hard news recently. Aside from lockdown, and Super Cyclone Amphan hitting Bengal in May, another devastating blow was the untimely death last month from Covid-19 of the charity’s co-founder and Kolkata director Geeta Venkadakrishnan.

However, fundraising for the Kolkata programmes must go on. And the book club’s part of that. 

“It’s real-time, interactive — so different to watching someone promote a book on TV,” says Charlotte, explaining that sometimes the discussion’s light-hearted, sometimes philosophical.

Some participants have signed up for the year; others (there are men too) drop in month-to-month, as a book interests them. Donation per meeting: €10 – https://www.hopeshop.ie/product/book-club/.

Fundraising with a difference

  • MS READaTHON goes online: Students read whatever they like, as much as they can until November 30 and earn virtual reward badges/stars, build avatars, share their campaign on social media and rate/review books at https://www.msreadathon.ie/. Funds raised support MS Ireland services.
  • ‘Brave the Shave’: Two Wexford sisters are doing sponsored head shave for Make-A-Wish Ireland in solidarity with their dad who’s undergoing cancer treatment. Donate at https://donorbox.org/sisters-brave-the-shave.
  • Dublin Rape Crisis Centre’s first ever large-scale digital fundraising campaign, #16stats, releases one stat every day (November 25-December 10), to tackle a different myth about rape (harmful beliefs/attitudes around sexual violence). https://www.drcc.ie/donate/.Aware’s 15th annual Christmas 5K goes virtual – participants countrywide can support mental health. Take on the challenge from December 11-13. Register (€25 per person) at https://www.awarechristmas5k.com/. Participants receive medal that doubles as Christmas tree decoration.
  • Irish Cancer Society’s virtual gaming fundraiser ‘Heroes from Home’ invites you to live-stream your video game play and encourage viewers/friends/family to donate. Play any game you like, at time that suits. Register at https://heroesfromhome.cancer.ie/.
  • Barretstown’s Virtual Winter Wonderland: purchase family ticket (€29.99) for hour-long virtual Santa experience, enjoy fun with elves and Santa visit from comfort of home. Book this month/early December a time from December 17-24; https://www.barretstown.org/

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