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
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
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
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
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
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.