Connie Byrnes chats with Davina Morgan-Witts, BookBrowse's editor, about the book club she founded four years ago in Southern California - the SoCal Book Babes.

Book Club Interviews

Connie Byrnes chats with Davina Morgan-Witts, BookBrowse's editor, about the book club she founded four years ago in Southern California - the SoCal Book Babes.

Please tell us a bit about your group?

We're called the SoCal Book Babes. We've been together since December 2004. At the moment, there are 20 members, with approximately 12-15 active members (all females). We are all wives, mothers, and friends who were originally members of the MOMS Club of Dana Point/San Juan Capistrano in Southern California


Who came up with the name?

I did. It embodies our location in Southern California (known as SoCal), our club and, even though we are wives/moms, we are still cool/hot babes!



How would you describe your group's personality?

The SoCal Book Babes are lively, eclectic, feisty, and ... my favorite part ... outspoken!


How did the group get started?

I decided to start a book club with fellow members from our MOMS Club. The motive was to combat mom-brain and branch out past parenting books and infant/toddler books, to adult books with more than three words on a page and cutesy illustrations!


Tell us about your meetings

There are times when we meet at members' homes (especially during the holidays), but for the most part, we meet at a local coffee shop (JC Beans Coffee House, Dana Point, CA). There is a Starbucks two stores down, but our club wanted to support the "local" business and meets at JC Beans on the 3rd Wednesday of every month. You can't beat the coffee, fireplace, friendliness of the staff, and warm atmosphere.


Tell us about a typical meeting?

For the most part, we are structured in that everyone buys their drinks, chit chats for a few minutes while the members arrive; then, whomever is leading the group that month (who has usually printed discussion questions from the internet) opens the floor for debate.

There are times that we do get off topic, but the coffee shop closes at 8 pm, so that keeps us rolling. We also try to not have our group chat between themselves until after the meeting is over, so as not to be rude to the discussion leader. We usually have so much to say about the book that we all want to talk about it!


Do you always use discussion guides? What happens if you choose a book that doesn't have an available guide?

The discussion leader always checks the web for questions that pertain to the book, using websites like BookBrowse.com, ReadingGroupGuides.com and others. If none are found, or the ones available are ridiculous (you should see some of the questions we've found for some books), the discussion leader will just make them up.


How do you handle no-shows, or people coming to a meeting who haven't read the book?

Our club is totally cool with members not showing up (everyone RSVPs, so we know in advance who will/will not be there). We are all moms, so we all know that "things" happen! With respect to members not reading the book, all are welcome. You don't have to read the book to attend the meeting. Some members just want a "night out!"  On the whole, we're very relaxed.  There are members who float in and out – depending on what is going on in their lives at the moment, and that is fine. We like to make the meeting babe-friendly, so we are always open to new suggestions . . . Locations, book titles, the way the meetings are run, the way books are chosen, etc.


Have there been any issues that you've had to work through over the years?

Yes, recently, we had to poll our members regarding having potential new members join. We anonymously asked everyone if they agreed/disagreed with new members being: male, female only, friends of members, strangers, only MOMS Club members, etc.


So what were the results of your poll?

The results of our poll were ... only females (sorry, Dads) ... and, only friends of friends - no outsiders. We were looking to find a night where we could all get together, as friends, chit chat about something intellectual (not the latest capers of Max & Ruby), and . . . maybe even drink a cup of coffee while it's still HOT!


Is there something in particular that makes your group special to you and/or that you think might be different to other groups?

Our group is special in that we are committed to the group. The mere fact that we have been around since December of 2004 (going on our 4-year anniversary) makes us an incredible group of dedicated "babes!' We enjoy intellectual (and often silly) conversation, do not need to agree with one another, can have opinions that clash, and have a night where we are "babes" and not moms! It's nice to be called by your first name from time to time. Did I mention that we are all very opinionated! I love this about our group! You can say what you want, and still be friends.

Our group is also special because there is so much flexibility with our members. We can sit around and decide that we'd rather meet at a member's home, that we all hated a book and ditch a meeting and go to a movie instead, or just spend our time venting about our week.

Another fun aspect of our group is that someone (usually Christie Sweeney) is always bound to do some research on the author, character, location, etc. It's fun to hear a bit more detail about the title we've chosen.


Are any of you current or past members of other book clubs? If so, how do the other clubs compare with yours?

Some of our members have been in other clubs. They feel that they enjoy ours more because others were either too politically strong or their opinions got shot down. One member is currently in an "anti-book club" where they only discuss magazine articles! (I think it's just an excuse to get out of the house and drink wine!)


How do you organize yourselves outside of meetings?

For the most part, our book club is organized via email and the web. I use BookMovement.com to send emails to the club regarding the date, time, and location of our next meeting, along with the name of the book and discussion leader. Then, I send out a reminder email a week before to see if any RSVPs have changed.


Tell us about the sort of books you read?

We are all over the map reading fiction, non-fiction, cookbooks, classics, children's books, and, yes, even Oprah-selected books (but not a lot – we like to choose our own books without the little "O" sticker on them).


Have the types of books you've read changed over time?

No, we like to mix it up – long books, short books, fun books, serious books, best sellers, classics, etc. We're a wonderful array of "babes" originating from New Jersey to local California girls!


How do you decide which books to read?

Each member is responsible for a certain month of the year. They must bring four book titles to a meeting for the group to choose from. That member also does a bit of research to see if the books are available at the library or somewhere cheap online (like half.com).


What types of books tend to make for good discussions in your group

We really like to talk about books with fabulous characters! We talk about the book, the author, his/her characters, the writing, etc. We leave no stone (or page, that is) unturned. Even if we didn't particularly like the book, or were disappointed in a book, there is still a lot to discuss.

Some of our most interesting discussions have been for Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult, Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Matt Haddon.

Even if a book bombs, it's ok! We just move on! The two that totally bombed were The Road (too dark - but we still found plenty to discuss) and The Sound and The Fury by William Faulkner (too hard – even though we thought that reading it again after high school would make it easier ... Not!)


Are there any stand-out favorites?

Water For Elephants, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, among many others.


What books are coming up on your schedule soon?


We will be discussing The Color of Water by James McBride and Cooking with All Things Trader Joe's by Deana Gunn and Wona Miniati, which will be held at a member's home coupled with bringing pot luck items from this cook book to share.


You mentioned earlier that you like to mix things up. Can you tell us about some of the things you've done?

We might read a book that is coming to the big screen, then go to the movies instead of having a formal "book club" meeting. Or, we'll read a book then meet at a member's home for dinner. For example, we read, Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany by Bill Buford then had a pot luck Italian dinner night. We also read The Kitchen God's Wife by Amy Tan, then met at a member's home for take-out Chinese and a DVD showing of The Joy Luck Club. We also like to have book swaps where we bring our old titles and swap with other members.


If you were starting from scratch is there anything you'd do differently?

The only thing that we would have done differently would be to define the "membership" of the club from the beginning. So that if someone new wanted to join, we would have known in advance how to approach the topic, especially since we usually meet in a public place and people see our group and are interested in who we are. Ok, so we're loud and laugh a lot ... Is that a crime!


Are there any tips that you'd like to pass on to other book clubs?

First and foremost, a book club should be fun! It should not be too serious or too laid back. Clubs should try to stay on topic – some members don't care if you go off track and socialize, but others are there to truly discuss the book. Take into consideration any time constraints. If it is a fabulous book with a lot of discussion, then have the meeting at someone's house. Change the meetings with food, snacks, drinks, etc. No one wants the same meeting over and over and over again. Try having contests, prizes, etc. Also, set the parameters regarding the types of books to be chosen . . . Hard cover books will cost more than paperbacks. If you have a lot of members, check to see if your local library carries multiple copies. For clubs with fast readers, plan your books a couple of months at a time.


Thank you Connie. On behalf of all reading this, I'd like to wish you and the SoCal Book Babes many more years reading and laughing together.

© BookBrowse.com January 2009.

Would you be interested in being interviewed for this feature? If so, please contact us with brief details about your club. It is very helpful if you include both a contact email and a telephone number.
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