Meeting since 1985, from left clockwise, Pamela Devlin, Cathy Brew, Joan McCue, Patty Dunlap, Wanda Burzycki, Jeannette Anglin and Mary Lou Milkoff toast 37 years as part of My Book Club on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022, at Milkoff's home in Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

For 37 years, these seven Sonoma County women have met to talk about books, and life

“I love the metaphor of the submarine,” Pam Devlin said over lunch at a long glass table with six others in a Santa Rosa home.

“Oh, I really liked that!” Wanda Burzycki replied.

“How’s life, Cathy?” Joan McCue asked.

“Full of babies!”

The 37-year-old book club’s monthly meeting buzzed with conversation and laughter and the clatter of silverware on plates. Members raised their wine glasses cheerfully in the air.

It was typical for My Book Club, an all-women group whose seven members have held each other close through some of life’s deepest losses and happiest beginnings — deaths of parents and a beloved husband, but also children’s first days of school, career changes and finding love again after divorce.

“It’s more than a book club,” Devlin said. “We talk about the book, but we talk about all other aspects of our lives, too. We’ve gone through life’s ups and downs together. This club has been a place of strength and inspiration.”

In the spring of 1985, member Burzycki attended a workshop at the annual California Association of Teachers of English conference in Long Beach. Several English teachers, all from the same high school, presented the workshop and described their “professional” book club. For them, the club was a way to discuss literature with other English teachers and have fun while doing it.

Wanda Burzycki, left Pamela Devlin, Cathy Brew and Jeannette Anglin, look through scrapbooks of their previous 37 years of book club meetings, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022, in Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Wanda Burzycki, left Pamela Devlin, Cathy Brew and Jeannette Anglin, look through scrapbooks of their previous 37 years of book club meetings, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022, in Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

The teachers’ enthusiasm, camaraderie and encouragement to “get something started” inspired her that day, Burzycki said.

“The book club was my thread of friendship. They were there when I was heading in a different direction, who believed in me and who I just loved.” Wanda Burzycki

That summer, Burzycki, then an English teacher at Rincon Valley Middle School, was planning a leave of absence to enroll in a writing master’s degree program. But she knew she’d miss connecting with her colleagues, so she invited some of them to lunch at her Healdsburg home and asked each to bring their favorite book.

The idea bloomed, and a sisterhood unfolded.

My Book Club

“The book club was my thread of friendship,” Burzycki said. “They were there when I was heading in a different direction, who believed in me and who I just loved.”

The club began with nine members. Over time, one dropped out and another moved away. A solid seven have stayed with it: Burzycki, Devlin, McCue, Jeannette Anglin, Cathy Brew, Patty Dunlap and Mary Lou Milkoff.

As time passed, they began calling their group My Book Club. In addition to a love of literature, many of the members have another commonality: They were English, math and science teachers at Rincon Valley Middle School.

Harlem Shuffle is the topic of discussion for a group of women who have been meeting together since 1985 as part of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Book, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022, in Santa Rosa.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Harlem Shuffle is the topic of discussion for a group of women who have been meeting together since 1985 as part of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Book, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022, in Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

“When you’re so busy teaching, when do you discuss literature in the same way that you have in your class?” Burzycki said. “We wanted to practice what we preached.”

For the club’s 10th anniversary in September 1995, they rented a house at Sea Ranch for a weekend. That trip became a tradition repeated every summer after the school year ended. They would talk about books, sip wine, cook themed (Thai, Italian, Mexican, Filipino, Greek) dinners together, play Scrabble and share stories.

My Book Club rented a house in Sea Ranch for over 20 years for their annual summer retreat. Now, they have several years worth of pictures with them lined up at this rustic fence next to the house. (My Book Club)
My Book Club rented a house in Sea Ranch for over 20 years for their annual summer retreat. Now, they have several years worth of pictures with them lined up at this rustic fence next to the house. (My Book Club)

“It was like a three-day slumber party!” Burzycki said.

Over the years, they’ve made several scrapbooks filled with photos of their book club meetings, birthday celebrations and retirement parties.

“Our book club was a place where we could unload, where we could trust and could have a community,” said Milkoff, who lives in Santa Rosa.

Photos of “My Book Club” members hanging out at Sea Ranch for their annual summer weekend in 1997 and 1998. (My Book Club)
Photos of “My Book Club” members hanging out at Sea Ranch for their annual summer weekend in 1997 and 1998. (My Book Club)

They’ve also been a support to each other through life’s hardships.

In December 1995, McCue’s husband died. She had returned home from work one evening to find him in their Santa Rosa backyard, where he’d died of a heart attack.

“The book club has been with me through the greatest times of my life and the hardest times of my life. When tragedy happened, they were there.” Joan McCue

When that unexpected tragedy hit, the club members immediately came over to McCue’s house with care packages. They held McCue through grief and uncertainty as time passed.

“The book club has been with me through the greatest times of my life and the hardest times of my life. When tragedy happened, they were there,” McCue said. “It's a deeper friendship with these people.”

Dunlap divorced in 1996 but fell in love again years later and remarried in 2018. On her 60th birthday, her husband Larry wrote a love poem and proposed to her in front of the entire party. Everyone clapped. Dunlap felt embarrassed, but all the book club members were there, she remembered, smiling.

“We’ve lived through these unforgettable sorrows, but we’ve also experienced these moments of joy with one another,” Devlin said.

30-year anniversary photos of a group of women meeting since 1985. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2022
30-year anniversary photos of a group of women meeting since 1985. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2022

Connecting through literature

Some say you can learn a lot about a person based on their choice of literature. The My Book Club members can attest to this.

“There’s this great quote that says, ‘In literature as in love, we’re astonished at what is chosen by others,’” Devlin said during an interview last month. “That rings true.”

Burzycki typically chooses intellectual books, ones with profound themes that take days to ponder. Devlin enjoys dark literature and isn’t a fan of happy endings. Anglin is drawn to historical fiction and loves learning history through a character’s eyes.

“Through our discussions about a book’s themes and about which characters resonate, we got to know one other on a deeper level,” said Anglin, who lives in Penngrove.

“We talk about our families, work and life situations, but then there’s something deeper we explore together: ‘What’s going on in your soul?’”

From March 2020 through April 2021, My Book Club met only on Zoom. They picked books in response to the events during that year: the COVID-19 pandemic, the murder of George Floyd and nationwide protests, the summer fires and evacuations, the presidential election and the assault on the Capitol. (My Book Club)
From March 2020 through April 2021, My Book Club met only on Zoom. They picked books in response to the events during that year: the COVID-19 pandemic, the murder of George Floyd and nationwide protests, the summer fires and evacuations, the presidential election and the assault on the Capitol. (My Book Club)

The group, which meets once a month, first began meeting at each other’s homes with hors d'oeuvres, some dessert and wine after a long work day of teaching. Now that they’re all retired, they usually hold their book club meetings over lunch at their homes on a random day of the week.

In all, the group has read 267 books, a mix of fiction, nonfiction, historical fiction and plays, with the occasional classic like “Mrs. Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf or “My Cousin Bette” by Honoré de Balzac thrown in.

The members’ diverse teaching backgrounds fostered more interesting and lively discussions, too.

“We had Cathy’s math perspective, Patty’s science perspective and Mary Lou’s social science perspective,” Devlin said. “It made our conversations much deeper and richer to draw in our diverse backgrounds.”

After meeting in person after two years of Zoom book club meetings, Mary Lou Milkoff, Cathy Brew and Patty Dunlap say goodbye to one another at the end of the gathering. A group of Sonoma County women have been meeting for 37 years, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
After meeting in person after two years of Zoom book club meetings, Mary Lou Milkoff, Cathy Brew and Patty Dunlap say goodbye to one another at the end of the gathering. A group of Sonoma County women have been meeting for 37 years, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

A book titled “1,000 Years of Joys and Sorrows,” a memoir by Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei is next on their list, for March.

“Thirty-six years ago, these ladies embraced me,” Anglin said. “I felt intimidated at first to discuss literature with them. I was an avid reader but I wasn’t an English major. I didn’t know the mechanics and I wasn’t in a classroom doing what these women did, but they’ve taught me a lot. I grew and I learned from them.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mya Constantino at mya.constantino@pressdemocrat.com. @searchingformya on Twitter.

Mya Constantino

General Assignment/Features Reporter

Stories can inspire you, make you laugh, cry and sometimes, heal. I love a feature story that can encapsulate all of those things. I cover the interesting people that exist around us, art and music that move us and the hidden gems that make Sonoma County pretty cool. Let's explore those things together.

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