A Random Interview with Random Review Coordinators

With Lois Malango, Cheryl Maze, Debra Goldenberg, and Connie Georgiou

Each event within the Random Review series features an in-depth exploration of a selected book by a reviewer with expertise on the topic or theme of that book. The Friends of the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library have coordinated this popular series for the past 30 years, with five Friends members taking turns as chair/co-chair: Connie Foulke, Lois Malango, Cheryl Maze, Debra Goldenberg, and Connie Georgiou.

Library staff will be the program coordinators starting with this 2022-2023 season, and while the events will remain much the same, we wanted to celebrate the history of this amazing series by asking the former Random Review coordinators a few questions. Unfortunately, we were not able to speak with Connie Foulke, who passed away in 2009. We are so grateful she created this series that has left a lasting impact on our library and community.

See the upcoming schedule and find out more about Random Review here, and enjoy the interview with previous coordinators below!

What can you tell us about how Random Review began? Who began the series? What was the goal of the series?

LOIS MALANGO: [Here’s the timeline:]

1992: Connie Foulke started Random Review
1998: Connie Foulke recruited me
2003: I recruited Cheryl Maze
2006: Cheryl recruited Debra Goldenberg
2009: Connie Georgiou joined
2022: 30 years of Random Review!

Connie Foulke started Random Reviews after she retired from teaching English at Crescent Valley. After seeing the reading patterns of her students and their families, her goal was to involve the community of Corvallis and help develop the reading habits and tastes of the non-academic community.

Connie was assigned to me as a student teacher at Crescent Valley in 1974. I was half her age. As a teacher she was a natural, and she was hired and taught high school until she retired in 1988. By 1992, she must have decided that she wasn’t done presenting literature to the folks of Corvallis, and a book review series was needed.

Random Reviews, which she named, started in November of 1992, with a review of two books: Who Will Tell the People, by William Grieder, and A Parliament of Whores, by PJ O’Rourke, reviewed by Bruce Williams with an audience of 23. In 1998, when Connie heard I was retiring from teaching, she asked me to take it over. Her plan was to train with her for two years and then she would turn it over to me. Our roles were reversed.

My neighbor, Cheryl Maze, was retiring from running the gem of the now defunct bookstore at OSU (its absence has been one of Corvallis’ greatest losses). She permitted me to convince her that running Random Review was no work at all.

CHERYL MAZE: I served three years as chair, then asked Debra Goldenberg to take over. We worked together at OSU Bookstore, and I saw that she had good organizational skills, and vast knowledge of literature. She said yes, and in a year or two, she asked Connie to be co-chair, as she realized being a single chair was a big job, even with the help from Kitty Bartee. I’m so glad she did that, as Debra and Connie have worked well together for years, and greatly expanded the Random Review audience. Success!

How did you, Debra and Connie, our most recent outgoing Coordinators, join Random Review?

CONNIE GEORGIOU: In summer 2006 Debra invited me to review The Omnivore’s Dilemma and to join the Random Review Book Selection Committee – I was hesitant about presenting a book review but absolutely sure I wanted to be on the committee since what I love to do most is recommend books for people to read. In 2009, Debra asked me if I’d like to co-chair Random Review with her. I said “yes” and became co-chair that year.

DEBRA GOLDENBERG: And I started as chair of Random Review in 2005-06, with Cheryl Maze, the previous chair, working with me for about a year before I took over. I had been on the selection committee for at least a couple of years before she asked me to step in as chair.

How has Random Review changed over the years?

CONNIE:  Audience size has gradually quadrupled from about 25 to about 100. Many technological upgrades. When I started, reviewers used transparencies for visuals or brought a slide projector.

DEBRA: Yes! I remember hauling that overhead projector out of the chair room and trying to set it up so it wouldn’t block anyone’s line of vision.

CONNIE: 2008 – Random Review began making digital recordings of reviews and they were available to be listened to by library patrons. Before that they were recorded on tapes.

DEBRA: When the library cleared out the collection of cassette tapes of reviews, I saved one- My Father Is a Book, reviewed by Tracy Daugherty in January 2007. I still have it. I didn’t even save my own recording of Seabiscuit, which I did in March, 2002.

CONNIE: What year did the Meeting Room add the ceiling projector? Reviewers began using their own laptops with the library projector. 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 all Random Reviews were presented virtually using the Go-To-Webinar platform.

DEBRA: We initiated a monthly mailing list in September 2020. Subscribers signed up on a form they could find either on the FOL website or on the Random Review webpage on the library website.

We also added year-round volunteers over the years. Adriene Koett-Cronn was designing posters for Random Review when I took over; she worked on them until sometime in 2010, when my husband Gary Whitehouse took over. He continued until June 2022. The first volunteer I recruited was Kitty Bartee, whose name I found on the Friend of the Library volunteers list. She joined me in about 2008 and took over the job of setting out the refreshments and helping with whatever was needed, and continued until we started our virtual presentations. Connie’s husband Bob Latham joined us [at some point] to set up and take down the chairs in the meeting room. Gail Gerdemann was recruited by Connie in May 2014 to select books for the book cart we had every month, with books from the collection that were related to the topic of the day. I believe Gail will continue with this job. When we started the mailing list, I recruited Karen Skjei to oversee it.

Until we switched to virtual presentations, each reviewer received a hand-written thank-you note on a Friends of the Library notecard. This tradition – along with flowers and refreshments – started at the beginning of Random Review in 1992, and the founder, Connie Foulke, felt very strongly that the book review program should be a pleasant and gracious gathering of people with a common interest.

What was one of your favorite Reviews?

CONNIE: Shirley Byrne’s 2010 review of Frank Conroy’s novel Body and Soul during which she gave a little impromptu piano lesson on the grand piano in the Main Meeting Room apropos of something in the book.

DEBRA: Mine was the above-mentioned review of My Father Is a Book, Janna Malamud Smith’s biography of Bernard Malamud, presented by Tracy Daugherty. In addition to a wonderful review, at the end, many audience members recounted their memories of the Malamuds when they lived in Corvallis. It was a delight to listen to all the stories and we ran way over time because so many friends and neighbors of the family attended and spoke at the end.

I know you didn’t really ask this question, but one thing I will always remember about Random Review is the time that Bill Robbins gave his fifth review, in April 2015. I had jokingly suggested a “marching band” to celebrate this record-setting number of reviews, and he seemed to really like that idea and reminded me of it later. [You may] remember the resulting kazoo band, parading around the meeting room before Bill’s talk, playing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”!!! I wish we had a video of that. I may actually have some still photos somewhere, which I should dig up.

What was one of your favorite books reviewed?

CONNIE: This is difficult so I’ll pick two. Ivan Doig’s last book, Last Bus to Wisdom and Willa Cather’s My Antonia.

DEBRA: I agree that this is difficult! I will also pick two. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, reviewed by Marjorie Sandor on Nov. 10, 2021, and Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, reviewed by Wendy Madar (who didn’t like it) on June 10, 2009.

What is one thing you doubt most people know about Random Review?

CONNIE: Some of these we will probably take to the grave. But, one is that, after we had connected with Jim Day at the GT [Gazette-Times], our articles about upcoming reviews regularly appeared in the newspaper on the Sunday before the review. Apparently, other people had less consistent success getting their articles to appear. One day at Random Review, a woman came up to me and demanded “I want to know who you and Debra are sleeping with at the GT to get your articles published so consistently.”

DEBRA: I suspect that most people don’t really know the time and energy involved in setting up a 10-event program each year, including the challenge of contacting reviewers who have busy lives and careers and don’t always keep up with their email communications. I have to say that one of us was very good at tracking down reviewers and has been known to go to their houses and knock on the door when it was getting down to the wire and we hadn’t heard from the reviewer since their initial acceptance. Such fortitude!

What are you most proud of in your years leading Random Review?

CONNIE: The continuity and superior quality of the Random Review Program by the Friends of the Library for so many years. And, the consistent support of the program by the library.

Also, the very discerning book selection committee members we have been able to attract and retain. They have unfailingly nominated a fascinating and wide-ranging array of books and have reached consensus on ten meritorious selections each year.

Further, the inclusion of an increasing number of books on scientific inquiry, and the quality of the reviewers, almost all local, we have been able to recruit.
And, finally, that the program has been able to consistently attract an ever-increasing audience of book lovers.

DEBRA: I don’t think I have anything to add to this list.

What have been some of the greatest challenges leading Random Review?

CONNIE: Learning new technologies for presentation, figuring out how to manage the program during the COVID years, and occasionally having to employ innovative ways to contact reviewers who were unresponsive to emails.

DEBRA: Finding reviewers for some of the more challenging and controversial books.

What do you hope for the future of Random Review?

CONNIE: Continuation forever under the guidance of innovative librarians like Bonnie Brzozowski and Mike Hanson [the library staff taking over Random Review coordination]. I could probably go on and on but I’m going to leave it at this.

DEBRA: I, also, would like to see the program continue into the future but also would hope that it will adapt to the times and stay as popular as it currently is.

Return to the Random Review schedule here.