An interview with Novels & Nightcaps - a monthly book club of eight women, based near Death Valley, who are all affiliated with the US Navy.
Andrea, first let me start by wishing Novels & Nightcaps a very happy birthday! Your group just celebrated a significant milestone, correct?
Yes! As of July 2012, we have been together one year.
That's fantastic! Tell us a little bit about why you got the group started.
My motives for founding Novels & Nightcaps were two-fold: first, I found myself reading a lot of good books but didn't have anyone I could talk with about them - I wanted to get either validation or a fresh outlook; secondly, I was new to Ridgecrest (CA) and wanted to meet more people because I only knew two women from work. I figured if only one person wanted to be in the group, I'd still have somebody with whom I could socialize and share a glass of wine! Ridgecrest is a rural desert community near Death Valley and is approximately 1.5 hours away from shopping, restaurants, and social options. I was counting on the two people I knew to invite people I had never met, thus expanding my circle of friends.
What is the demographic of your group? How would you describe the personality of Novels & Nightcaps?
There are eight women in the group, and our ages range from 39 - 60. Our commonality is that we are all associated with the military - either the spouse of a retired military service member or we work on-base for the United States Navy. We are an eclectic mix of personalities, religious viewpoints, political affiliations, and marital statuses. We are zany, opinionated, and eager to share our thoughts, feelings and experiences. We don't all have children, and we didn't all grow up in the US so our frames of reference and insights into a story can be very different. We run the risk of personality conflicts - that issue has come up a couple of times - but we all try to be tolerant, accommodating and forgiving of each other. We like to think our group is unique because we are not necessarily like-minded individuals, except for the fact that we all like to read, socialize and occasionally have a signature drink that complements our book selection for the month (thus the name "Novels & Nightcaps")!
With so many differing opinions, how do you maintain an open and comfortable environment?
The camaraderie that we have developed has been an important element. Everyone seems to agree that Novels & Nightcaps is a safe place to voice our differences without offending anyone or getting our own feelings hurt (for the most part). We've also learned that we're not always as thick-skinned as we would like to believe! Through our book selection process, we've realized that we challenge each other to read books that we otherwise might not have an interest in. It's forced us, in a positive way, to leave our comfort zones.
What is your book selection process like?
One of our members, Sara, came up with the idea of putting a bunch of book genres/topics into a hat and having everyone take a turn to randomly select one. Some of our genres are: mysteries, humor, animals, travel, food/cooking, westerns, sci-fi, fantasy, paranormal, romance, biographies, classics, war/military, diaries/memoirs, etc. We've agreed to try and stay clear of religion and politics so that no one feels like there might be an underlying motive and so the discussion doesn't become polarizing. We don't avoid those issues when they come up; however, they aren't central topics of conversation. We have a few basic rules that we try to follow:
- Commit to the group whether you like the book selection or not. It's respectful, and to do otherwise would defeat the point of the group. If one only wants to read a certain type of book, joining a group like ours might not be the best idea.
- Pick a book that you haven't read. It puts us all in a neutral position, and if it's a bomb... who knew!
- Every book selection must be able to be read in one month.
It sounds like your policy of open-mindedness allows for truly engaging sessions. Could you say a little bit more about the logistics of your meetings? When and where do you meet? How do you ensure that the meetings run smoothly?
Novels & Nightcaps meets once a month.
It is up to the hostess for that month to decide where the location will be, but so far we've mostly held meetings at our homes. I hosted at a little French café after reading A Year in Provence, and even gathering under the stars with our lanterns and flashlights has been suggested for our sci-fi and paranormal selections! Typically we meet at 7pm on the last work day of the week so that everyone can have dinner with their families, and then we can relax and not feel rushed to get home.
The hostess serves snacks and drinks - both alcoholic and non-alcoholic. The preparation can be as creative, elaborate or as minimal as the hostess wants, and some ladies have served snacks/drinks in keeping with the theme of the book. Marta set up her kitchen area like the bar from The Catcher in the Rye, complete with a drink menu and a bartender (her husband, Phil)! Mikie captured the Harry Potter theme by serving pumpkin beer, Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans and chocolate covered wands (pretzels). Maureen made a delicious banana daiquiri to go with our discussion of an old Herman Wouk novel, Don't Stop the Carnival. We don't always have the time or energy to prepare at this level, but when we do it makes for a lot of laughter, good times and incriminating photos!
The hostess also facilitates the discussion and goes around the room and asks each individual for their opinions about the book. Once each person has had their turn, the conversation is opened for a more unstructured discussion. Some of our members are less likely to jump in with impromptu conversation but are more comfortable sharing their ideas if they have an uninterrupted time to do so. The turn-taking has given everyone an equal opportunity to speak. We have found, too, that we tend to get off topic a lot less when the meeting is more controlled.
How do you manage things when you do get off topic?
Because we're so eager to talk to each other, we sometimes find ourselves engaged in little side conversations - often related to the subject at hand! It helps that we begin our group get-togethers with plenty of social time before we start the book discussions. The key is figuring out how to redirect a conversation without seeming rude or embarrassing anyone. With a small group like ours (8) it isn't a real problem, but I can see that it could easily be a challenge with a larger group. We try to meet for barbecues or happy hours occasionally so that we have our uninterrupted social time, too! We are all eager to get better acquainted, and the book group has opened the door for outside friendships.
Which books have generated the most interesting discussions? Why?
We seem to have more to say about books we didn't like or books that inspired opposing opinions. A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan is a Pulitzer Prize winning novel with excellent critic reviews, however, none of us liked it! I think we talked more about that book because we were all trying to find some connection with the characters or events and situations. It led to a lengthy discussion because we collectively felt obligated to love it and looked to each other to discover what we had missed!
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah is another title that generated a lot of talk and strong opinions. There were opposing views on whether or not the author had actually written the first-hand account of the events in Sierra Leone during their civil war. Many defended the author because of his escape from the war zone and his forced participation as a child militant and marveled at his newfound success in the US. Others felt that he might have simply been an opportunist who sought to capitalize on stories of other boy soldiers and perhaps didn't actually write the book.
What books have been the group's favorites?
Some of our favorites have been:
- The Help by Kathryn Stockett
- A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle
- The Xavier Mosaic by Emma Austen
Novels & Nightcaps actually had the proud honor of hosting Emma Austen, our very first guest author.
She is a young and exceptionally talented writer from our small desert community and a sophomore at UCLA. Her work, The Xavier Mosaic, is a self-published, fantasy trilogy, and we found her story and her characters absolutely captivating. We all believe - as do critics - that the Xavier Mosaic trilogy could become a bestseller. Everyone in our group is committed to helping Emma find an agent and a publisher!
Is there anything particularly fun or special that Novels & Nightcaps has done that you'd like to pass on to other readers?
I had customized bookmarks made for each of our members, as a hostess gift. They read, "Nothing quiets the mind like a blanket, a fire, a novel and a nightcap." I feel like it was a nice way to thank the ladies who make this book group so enjoyable and successful.
Thank you Andrea! Your group sounds wonderful, and we appreciate you taking the time to share your experiences with BookBrowse. Here's to many more years in Novels & Nightcaps's future!
Novels & Nightcaps (left to right): Janet King, Maureen Flatebo, Emma Austen, Tiffany Chambers, Andrea Colley, Sara Bowen. Not pictured: Cynthia Lovern, Marta Chambers
Image of Ridgecrest, CA by Qfl247