Introducing . . . Between the Covers: Professionally Led Book Discussions

No two persons ever read the same book.
Edmund Wilson

Robert_Lewis_Reid_-_Two_Girls_ReadingIf you’ve ever participated in a book club, you know that Edmund Wilson is absolutely right. That’s what makes book discussions such enriching — but sometimes frustrating — experiences. Over the past thirty years, I’ve been a member of several book groups and I’ve facilitated many others. Highlights, or perhaps lowlights, of groups I’ve facilitated: the club “discussing” The Poisonwood Bible in which not one person had read the book (which didn’t prevent them from expressing strong opinions) and the group of elderly women who thought our meeting to talk about Tolstoy and the Purple Chair was actually naptime.

y6481Readers in Chicago’s northern suburbs, please come to one of our book discussions next month:

  • Thursday, May 3, 7:00 p.m., The Heart’s Invisible Furies with Alice Moody (Gorton Community Center, Lake Forest)
  • Tuesday, May 8, 8:15 a.m., American Panda with Ann Walters and Diane Grumhaus (Lake Forest Book Store, Lake Forest)
  • Thursday, May 10, 6:30 p.m.,The Woman in The Window with Alice Moody (The Book Stall at Chestnut Court, Winnetka)

33135584We’re also planning to hold presentations on “Books You Can’t Wait to Discuss” this summer — the first is scheduled for the evening of Thursday, July 12 at the Book Stall. What was the latest book you couldn’t wait to talk about with your book club (or your spouse, best friend, or co-worker)?  Please share your recent favorite in the comment section below, on Facebook or Twitter, or via email (bksonthetable@gmail.com).

For me, it was Educated by Tara Westover. My sister just told me that this memoir, about surviving a difficult childhood in a Mormon fundamentalist family, provided material for her book club’s best discussion ever. I wish I could have been there!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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6 Books to Read This Spring

Woke up this morning with
a terrific urge to lie in bed all day
and read. Fought against it for a minute.

Then looked out the window at the rain.
And gave over. Put myself entirely
in the keep of this rainy morning.

Raymond Carver

9781594488405I won’t bore you with long-winded complaints about the weather, but I will mention that it snowed and rained all weekend — which meant that I had the perfect excuse to stay home and become completely absorbed in The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer.

Books were an antidepressant . . . she’d always been one of those girls with socked feet tucked under her, her mouth slightly open in stunned, almost doped-up concentration. . . Novels had accompanied her throughout her childhood, that period of protracted isolation, and they would probably do so during whatever lay ahead in adulthood.

Greer Kadetsky is a freshman in college when she has a life-changing encounter with feminist icon Faith Frank (who closely resembles Gloria Steinem). After graduation, Greer goes to work for Faith’s foundation, while her longtime boyfriend, Cory Pinto, moves abroad for a consulting job. After he returns to the United States, events force both Greer and Cory (who are two of the most endearing characters I’ve come across in contemporary literature) to re-examine everything they’ve valued.

The publicity surrounding Wolitzer’s twelfth novel have focused on its political themes — female ambition and activism, the evolution of the women’s movement, sexual assault on campus — but this isn’t a political book; it’s a traditional, character-driven novel. There’s even a satisfying, mostly happy ending. For an interesting interview with Meg Wolitzer, check out the Parnassus Books blog. Fun fact from the interview: Nora Ephron was Meg Wolitzer’s mentor, who encouraged her to find her voice just as Faith makes Greer’s “head crack open”.

9780812996067

Like Meg Wolitzer, Anna Quindlen is an author who never disappoints me. I think her latest book, Alternate Side, is one of her best, although quite a few reviewers disagree with me, finding her focus too rarefied.

Nora and Charlie seem to have everything: a brownstone on a quiet cut-de-sac in New York’s Upper West Side, surrounded by long-time neighbors who throw great parties, college-aged twins who love their visits home, and terrific jobs. But when a parking dispute turns into a violent incident, life begins to unravel.

Like Nora Ephron, Quindlen zeroes in on her characters with just the right details. (Is it a coincidence that Quindlen named her protagonist Nora?) Nora, a passionate New Yorker, can’t understand why anyone would want to live anywhere else:

“I hear it’s snowing there!” Bebe would bellow jubilantly when she called in later in the day, in that way Florida people always did, as though temperate weather alone were equivalent to Lincoln Center, Broadway theater, endless restaurants, Saks.

According to the Washington Post, “Quindlen has written a book that only a New Yorker — or at least someone who has lived there for a stint — could love. The rest of the world may have a hard time relating to the characters.” I disagree —  you certainly don’t need to have lived in New York, or even to understand the city’s “alternate side” parking regulations, to enjoy this novel.

Laura-EmmaNot everyone is going to love Kate Greathead’s debut novel, Laura and Emma, but I’m crazy about it. Not much happens; it’s a character study of a woman named Laura, who comes from a very privileged background in New York but has never felt that she fits in. When she gets pregnant by accident, she raises her daughter, Emma, on her own. The writing is just perfect; Kate Greathead has a unique voice that resonated with me. It’s perfect for readers who enjoyed Emily, Alone by Stewart O’Nan, Someone by Alice McDermott, or My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. These books are the opposite of page-turners, but I found them more compelling than any thriller.

Laura, who incongruously makes her living as an event planner, is a keen observer:

The featured guest was an author who had recently published a bestselling novel, the kind of book everyone they knew was reading. Laura didn’t need to read it to know it was trash. She could tell from the cover: two pairs of feet and rumpled bedsheets. The author himself looked like he’d just emerged from an afternoon in a hotel room, with his tousled hair, slap-happy grin, and dress shirt unbuttoned one button too many.

35214109Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser successfully combines the true story of Wilder’s difficult life and American expansion in the West in an original and captivating narrative. This meticulously researched book — which just won the Pulitzer Prize for biography — will fascinate not only Little House on the Prairie fans but anyone with an interest in the complicated history of pioneers and homesteaders.

Wilder’s perseverance gave rise to one of the most astonishing rags-to-riches stories in American letters . . . Wilder reimagined her frontier childhood as epic and uplifting. Her gently triumphal revision of homesteading would convince generations that the American farm was a model of self-sufficiency. At the same time, it would hint at the complex realities behind homesteading, suggesting that it broke more lives than it sustained.

9780451495327In one of the most moving memoirs I’ve ever read, Clemantine Wamariya, a very young survivor of the Rwandan genocide, tells her heartbreaking story of loss and survival. The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After is reminiscent of A Long Way Gone by former child soldier Ismael Beah. With her older sister, six-year-old Clemantine fled her home and wandered throughout Africa in search of safety, finally receiving asylum in the United States. As a young adult, she tries to come to terms with the tragedy that shaped her life:

I had been so absorbed as a young child, in knowing the world, and then I’d lost the whole world that I knew . . . Now I was sitting here, in Kenilworth, across a rift in the galaxy a million miles wide, learning about one group of people killing another group of people, people they lived with and knew. 

9780735219441 I absolutely adored The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, about a writer who loses her dearest friend but finds solace when she becomes the reluctant owner of the Great Dane he has left behind. It’s a lovely, unsentimental story about grief, friendship, literature, and the bond between people and their pets, filled with the narrator’s thoughts on reading and writing. If you love dogs and books, you’ll savor this jewel of a book. I promise you that it’s not sappy. This will definitely make my list of favorite novels at the end of the year.

Your whole house smells of dog, says someone who comes to visit. I say I’ll take care of it. Which I do by never inviting that person to visit again.

I recommended Alternate Side, The Friend, and Prairie Fires in an earlier post this month (How to Celebrate National Poetry Month), but that post has the dubious distinction of being my least-read post in years — which shows that one, National Poetry Month was not an enticing topic to most readers, and two, that I’m not good at writing catchy titles. There are actually websites devoted to creating click-bait blog post titles — you plug in the topic and an algorithm fills in the blanks. Here are some of the headlines suggested to me:

Five Stereotypes About National Poetry Month That Aren’t Always True; The Worst Advice We’ve Ever Heard About National Poetry Month; Think You’re Cut Out for Poetry? Take This Quiz and Find Out!; and my favorite, Does National Poetry Month Make You Feel Stupid? Actually, no — what makes me feel stupid is when I click on a ridiculous headline created by an algorithm, not a thoughtful human being.

 

 

How to Celebrate National Poetry Month –and National Car Care Awareness Month

y648April is National Poetry Month!

The act of treating poetry like a difficult activity one needs to master can easily perpetrate those mistaken, and pervasive, ideas about poetry that make it hard to read in the first place. Like classical music, poetry has an unfortunate reputation for requiring special training and education to appreciate . . . To learn to read poetry is first a matter of forgetting many incorrect things we have learned in school. And then of learning to accept what is right before us on the page.
Matthew Zapruda, Why Poetry

9780399563249If your idea of reading poetry is your sophomore English teacher leading the class through a grim line-by-line analysis of “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, I suggest you pick up a copy of Matthew Zapruda’s Why Poetry — along with Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver. These books will show you the joy of reading a poem without viewing it as a coded message.

9781250113320Believe it or not, a century or so ago, poetry was popular, published every day in newspapers and magazines. Consider Margaret Fishback , the real-life inspiration for the title character in Kathleen Rooney’s absolutely delightful Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, Fishback, a highly paid advertising copywriter long before the days of Madmen, published four bestselling books of poetry, and her clever verse, amusing and easy to understand, was  published in Vanity Fair, Good Housekeeping, Harper’s Bazaar, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, to name just a few. Lillian Boxfish, just out in paperback, is a charming chronicle not only of the life of a remarkable woman but of six decades of change in Lillian’s beloved New York City.

Poetry fans aren’t the only people who have claimed April as their official month. Dozens of other causes and organizations have designated April as National Whatever Month — here are a few examples, along with recommended reading:

y648Distracted Driver Awareness Month
Please for the love of God, if you drive a car and you haven’t read A Deadly Wandering: A Mystery, A Landmark Investigation and the Astonishing Science of Attention in the Digital Age by Matt Richtel, read it and make sure your kids do too. It’s truly a lifesaving book about a teenage driver who killed two people when he decided to send his girlfriend a quick text. But it’s not homework —  it’s also as compelling a story as any thriller. For my complete review, click here.

Confederate History Month
This one doesn’t sit well with me. I suggest one of the recent award winners about the horrors and legacy of slavery — Sing Unburied Sing by Jesymn Ward and The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Or you could read Rick Bragg’s The Best Cook in the World: Tales From My Momma’s Table, which would also count for National Food Month.

9780735219441Pets Are Wonderful Month, Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Month, and National Canine Fitness Month
I absolutely adored The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, about a writer who loses her dearest friend but finds solace when she becomes the reluctant owner of the Great Dane he has left behind. It’s a lovely, unsentimental story about grief, friendship, and the bond between people and their pets, filled with the narrator’s thoughts on reading and writing. If you love dogs and literature, you’ll savor this jewel of a book.

Confederate History Month
This one doesn’t sit well with me. I suggest one of the recent award winners about the horrors and legacy of slavery — Sing Unburied Sing by Jesymn Ward and The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. You could also read Rick Bragg’s The Best Cook in the World: Tales From My Momma’s Table, which would also count for National Food Month.

9781400040414National Food Month (also, National Fresh Celery Month and National Soft Pretzel Month)
First of all, shouldn’t it be National Soft HOT Pretzel Month? Because if pretzels are soft but they’re not hot, they’re no good at all.) I have no suggestions for books about celery or pretzels, but I can recommend a terrific memoir masquerading as a food book: The Best Cook in the World (to be published April 24)I loved journalist Rick Bragg’s earlier stories of growing up poor in the deep South, and this installment is just as good. But don’t read it for the recipes, unless you relish pan-roasted pig’s feet and baked possum.

National Autism Awareness Month
If you liked The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, don’t miss Ginny Moon. Narrated by the title character, a fourteen-year-old girl with autism, Ginny Moon holds surprises on nearly every page. Your heart will go out to Ginny, who is misunderstood at every turn. The author, Benjamin Ludwig, knows what he’s talking about: like the couple in his novel, he and his wife adopted a young autistic girl who longed to return to her birth mother.

35214109National Older Americans Month
Older? Older than whom? I am 57. Am I an “older American”? There are a lot of much older Americans. Still, it’s nice to read books written by and about these older Americans. I was inspired by Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser, which successfully combines the true story of Wilder’s difficult life and the history of American expansion in the West in an original and captivating narrative. Wilder published her first book in the beloved Little House series when she was sixty-five.

9780812996067Anna Quindlen’s new book, Alternate Side, about a Manhattan couple with an empty nest (who could be described as “older Americans”) who are facing problems with each other and in their closely knit  neighborhood, is terrific. According to the Washington Post, “Quindlen has written a book that only a New Yorker — or at least someone who has lived there for a stint — could love. The rest of the world may have a hard time relating to the characters.” It’s true that this book — like Lillian Boxfish and The Friend — is a New York book, but you certainly don’t need to have lived in New York, or even to understand the city’s “alternate side” parking regulations, to enjoy this novel. You can never go wrong with Anna Quindlen.

National Car Care Awareness Month
I have no suggestions. I’m going to take my car for a wash.

P.S. I forgot to mention that it’s National Safe Digging Month, and I do have a suggestion for that: Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel, still a favorite among preschoolers.