8 Short Novels Your Book Club Will Actually Finish

Very few very long novels earn their length. My fingers are always twitching for a blue pencil.
Ian McEwan

I’ve never met a reader who doesn’t like short novels . . .What a short novel asks is that you commit, in one sitting, the same amount of time to reading as you frequently commit to a film or a football match. Make that commitment and, in many cases, the payoff outweighs the investment.
Cynan Jones

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Three books, 2,208 pages

Let’s face it: Most books are too long. If I’m going to read a book that’s 400 pages or more, it had better be spectacular. It seems to me that books, like people, have been getting heavier over the past 20 years — and recent studies confirm my suspicion. The Guardian says:

Books are steadily increasing in size, according to a survey that has found the average number of pages has grown by 25% over the last 15 years.

A study of more than 2,500 books appearing on New York Times bestseller and notable books lists and Google’s annual survey of the most discussed books reveals that the average length has increased from 320 pages in 1999 to 400 pages in 2014.

Even children’s books are getting longer; one study states that the average length of a middle-grade book published in 1996 was 137 pages, while in 2016 the average length was 290 pages.

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11 books, 1,825 pages

Peirene Press, a boutique publishing company based in London, specializes in short books. They “only publish books of less than 200 pages that can be read in the same time it takes to watch a DVD.”  What if book clubs, especially those whose members aren’t showing up or aren’t finishing (or even starting) the assigned reading, took a leaf out of Peirene’s book, so to speak, and only chose books that are 200 pages or shorter? Length does not necessarily correspond with complexity or quality. The Great Gatsby, the quintessential Great American Novel and required reading for almost every high school student, is only 180 pages long.

Book clubs are often too ambitious with their selections, choosing books that they think they should read, not books they really want to read, AND picking books that are very long.  One book club with which I’m intimately acquainted chose Barkskins by Annie Proulx (736 pages), with less than stellar results: no one finished the book. They still managed to have a great discussion, and everyone agreed the book was worth finishing. This group, all great readers, had much better luck with News of the World (224 pages), Homegoing (320 pages), and The Book of Unknown Americans (304 pages), which everyone in the group read and loved. (However, another favorite was A Little Life, 720 pages long.)

The average reading speed is about 300 words per minute. A trade paperback has roughly 300 words per page, depending on variables such as font size and amount of dialogue. So a 200-page book takes the average reader a little over three hours to read. I think anyone who’s committed to a book group can devote three hours to the monthly selection, unless it’s truly dreadful. Here are thumbnail reviews of ten books, both old and new, that you can polish off on a Saturday afternoon. The New York Times describes The Sense of an Ending as “a short book, but not a slight one”, which actually characterizes all these books.

9780307947727The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (163 pages)
Winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, this novel is much more accessible and plot-driven than the typical Booker Prize novel. Tony Webster, a retired historian in his sixties, receives an unusual bequest that causes him to reflect on his past. This was a favorite of my coed book group.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie (184 pages)
Based on the author’s experience with “re-education” during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, this is the tale of two city boys sent to the countryside for manual labor. They discover a hidden suitcase full of Western literature and begin their own program of re-education, introducing the village seamstress to Balzac, Cervantes, Tolstoy, and other forbidden writers.

9781101971727Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift (177 pages)
Downton Abbey fans will love this book, which NPR says “is one of those deceptively spare tales (like The Sense of an Ending) that punch well above their weight.” Jane Fairchild, now a successful author in her nineties, was a housemaid to an upper-class British family after World War I — and was involved in an affair with one of the family’s wealthy neighbors. How can you resist a novel that opens with this sentence: “Once upon a time, before the boys were killed and when there were more horses than cars, before the male servants disappeared and they made do, at Upleigh and at Beechwood, with just a cook and a maid . . .”?

The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain (159 pages)
When a Parisian bookseller comes upon a lost handbag containing a red notebook and no identification, he tries to track down the owner. This lovely little book about the power of kindness is just right for readers who find many contemporary novels “depressing”, and it has more depth than you might first imagine. (Two of Laurain’s other books are available in English translation as well — The President’s Hat and French Rhapsody. They’re both delightful, and barely above the 200-page cutoff.)

5497435-_uy200_Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan (146 pages)
Manny DeLeon, manager of a failing Red Lobster, has just learned that his restaurant is closing and he’s been demoted to assistant manager at a nearby Olive Garden. Despite a blizzard that keeps customers and employees away on the restaurant’s final night, Manny won’t close early. It doesn’t sound like much of a story, but O’Nan (one of my favorite authors) has written an emotionally resonant reflection on the American Dream.

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf (192 pages)
Addie Moore and Louis Waters, both widowed and in their seventies, are long-time neighbors who seek respite from loneliness in an unusual way: through a platonic friendship that includes sleeping in the same bed. Kent Haruf gives more insight into the lives and longings of his characters in less than 200 pages than many authors do in books double that length.

another-brooklyn-393x600Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson (170 pages)
A runner-up for last year’s National Book Award, Another Brooklyn is a poetic coming-of-age story set in 1970s Brooklyn. I was tempted to race through, but forced myself to slow down and savor the spare and beautiful language.

The Common Reader by Alan Bennett (120 pages)
Queen Elizabeth II stumbles upon a bookmobile parked by Buckingham Palace and discovers a love of reading, with amusing and unexpected consequences. It’s a perfect book for any bookworm — I l love that the Queen keeps a reading journal.

Which do you prefer — a big fat book you can get lost in for days or weeks, or a short novel you can read in a couple of hours?

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Book Club Spotlight — Celebrity Book Clubs

 

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The first selection of Oprah’s book club

It all started with Oprah Winfrey. In 1996, she launched a book club that made an enormous impact on readers, authors, and publishers. For 15 years, Oprah’s choices became worldwide bestsellers. During the heyday of her club,  Oprah’s power as a recommender, often called the “Oprah Effect” in the publishing world, was unparalleled. Michael Pietsch, currently CEO of Hachette Book Group and past publisher of Little, Brown & Co., said in a USA Today article that Oprah “didn’t originate the idea of book clubs, but more than anyone, she has spread the idea of reading a book as a shared community.” Nora Rawlinson, who’s been the editor of Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and now EarlyWord, citing surveys showing that “friends’ recommendations are the top reasons people buy a book” says that “Oprah is the ultimate friend to her audience.”

A lot of readers must think they’re friends with actress Emma Watson, because as of today, 84,000 people had signed up for her new feminist book club, “Our Shared Shelf”. Watson, who became famous through her portrayal of brave and brilliant  Hermione in the Harry Potter movies, is a United Nations Women Goodwill Ambassador with a special interest in gender equality and its benefits for both men and women. UN Goodwill Ambassadors are celebrity advocates, drawn from the “worlds of art, music, film, sport and literature to highlight key issues.”

Watson has ambitious plans for her book club. In her announcement on Goodreads, she says:

The plan is to select and read a book every month, then discuss the work during the month’s last week (to give everyone time to read it!). I will post some questions/quotes to get things started, but I would love for this to grow into an open discussion with and between you all. Whenever possible I hope to have the author, or another prominent voice on the subject, join the conversation.

9780679456209Watson has selected Gloria Steinem’s memoir, My Life on the Road, for the first online discussion, scheduled to begin in  a couple of weeks. (The exact date isn’t clear.) I’m not sure how the logistics of an online discussion with thousands of people will work, but kudos to Emma Watson for launching the club on January 6, choosing the first book on January 8, and attracting 84,000 enthusiastic participants less than a week later. I’m just glad I don’t have to supply the wine and cheese.

Mark Zuckerberg made a reading resolution last year, announcing on January 2, 2015 that he planned to read a book every other week and post discussions on Facebook. His Facebook page for “A Year of Books” says: “We will read a new book every two weeks and discuss it here. Our books will emphasize learning about new cultures, beliefs, histories and technologies.” As of December 28, the “community” (Zuckerberg never refers to it as a “book club”) had read 23 books, just short of the stated goal of 26 books. Many recent commenters wondered if “A Year of Books” would continue in 2016; one commenter replied, “I believe that Mark has a new challenge for 2016”. He does — and it doesn’t involve books. Zuckerberg posted this update on Facebook:

Every year, I take on a personal challenge to learn new things and grow outside my work at Facebook. My challenges in recent years have been to read two books every month, learn Mandarin and meet a new person every day. My personal challenge for 2016 is to build a simple AI to run my home and help me with my work.

On Immunity.JPGI guess that building a robot would take away from my reading time, so I’ll stick with books. Zuckerberg’s reading list, with a few exceptions, looks pretty dreary to me — I’m not reading The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (a history of science published in 1970) anytime soon. Maybe Zuckerberg got burned out on reading because he didn’t include any fiction in the mix, except a work of science translated from the Chinese (The Three-Body Problem) whose title refers to the “three-body problem in orbital mechanics.” I did enjoy, and highly recommend, one of Zuckerberg’s picks — On Immunity: An Inoculation, by Eula Biss. This fascinating book, which defies categorization (science? sociology? memoir?) would be a great choice for real-life book clubs.

16071736Vogue magazine calls actress and producer Reese Witherspoon the “new patron saint of literature”.  Witherspoon’s production company, Pacific Standard, produced film adaptations of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl; current projects include movie versions of The Engagements (J. Courtney Sullivan) and Luckiest Girl Alive (Jessica Knoll) and a TV miniseries based on Big Little Lies (Liane Moriarty). According to Vogue:

As if bringing these stories to the big screen weren’t enough, Witherspoon constantly promotes the many books on her nightstand on her Instagram account. Her posts, which have included snaps of Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl, Malala Yousafzai’s memoir, and many others, have become the equivalent of an Oprah’s Book Club stamp for the social media generation.

I’ve come across many references to Reese Witherspoon’s “book club”, but all I could find was her Instagram feed with photos of book she’s reading followed by thousands of brief comments from her adoring fans — “She always reads awesome books!”; “Follow Reese for book recommendations!”; “Have to get this one!” This seems like a far cry from Oprah’s hour-long, in-depth televised interviews with authors. But more power to Witherspoon for getting on her celebrity soapbox to support books she loves. The cynic in me needs to add that some of these are books she’s bought the film rights to — so not only does she love them, she has a financial stake in their success.

rosie-project-9781476729091_lgBill Gates doesn’t have a book club, but he frequently posts reviews on his blog, Gates Notes. He told the New York Times he reads about 50 books a year, mostly nonfiction with a few novels interspersed. He’s a book blogger after my own heart, telling the Times that “he rarely posts negative reviews of books, explaining that he sees no need to waste anyone’s time telling them why they shouldn’t bother reading something.” He recommends one of his fellow billionaire Mark Zuckerberg’s choices, On Immunity:  “When I stumbled across the book on the Internet, I thought it might be a worthwhile read. I had no idea what a pleasure reading it would be. ” Gates also enjoyed Graeme Stimson’s The Rosie Project, a charming novel about a professor on the autism spectrum trying to find love: “It’s an extraordinarily clever, funny, and moving book about being comfortable with who you are and what you’re good at. I’m sending copies to several friends . . . This is one of the most profound novels I’ve read in a long time.”

Do celebrities influence your book choices? And what do you think of online book clubs in general?

Book Thieves on the Loose

There are no faster or firmer friendships than those formed between people who love the same books.
Irving Stone

Like many book clubs, mine celebrates the holidays with a book exchange. This event always draws record attendance — last night, a dozen of us showed up with beautifully wrapped books in hand, ready to steal from one another. We’ve done this so many times we don’t need any instructions, but we received a friendly reminder from our book club “secretary”:

Bring a wrapped book for our annual book exchange (aka STEALING Game) . . . I love the food , drink and camaraderie, but LIVE for the stealing event!

We added a new twist to our traditional “Yankee swap” rules this year: the hostess is allowed to steal any book she wants at the end of the game. We thought that was the least we could do for our hardworking hostess.

I drew a bad number (#3) but still hit the jackpot — I went home with three terrific books, because one generous member of our group bundled three short story collections together. Actually, there were no dud books to be had last night. Everyone left with a great book (or two, or three), excited to begin reading — or coloring.

The Secret Garden and Enchanted Forest (Johanna Bamford) with a set of colored pencils — Adult coloring books have become hugely popular, and devotees say they induce a Zenlike state of relaxation. So when the rest of us are running around doing last-minute holiday errands, one of our group will be calmly coloring the beautiful designs in these books.

51bqo1nszfl-_sx326_bo1204203200_Almost Famous Women autographed copy (Megan Mayhew Bergman) — This collection of “off-the-radar” female historical characters is going to the top of my pile.

We Never Asked for Wings autographed copy (Vanessa Diffenbaugh) — Diffenbaugh’s first book, The Language of Flowers, was a surprise bestseller; I thought We Never Asked for Wings was even better. The author visited Lake Forest in the fall; here’s the link to my interview with her: We Never Asked for Wings: Author Interview.

The Danish Girl (David Ebershoff) — We’re all looking forward to seeing the movie adaptation — when is it coming to Chicago? We’re tired of watching the previews!

Fortune Smiles (Adam Johnson) — Three members brought this year’s National Book Award winner for fiction. I can’t wait to read it — I loved Johnson’s 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner, The Orphan Master’s Son.

23507478Villa America (Liza Klaussmann) — Historical fiction about Sara and Gerald Murphy, contemporaries of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and their adventures with fellow expatriates on the French Riviera. Our hostess adored Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins — I think Villa America will be perfect for her.

Pretty Baby (Mary Kubica) — One member just received it as a birthday gift, and said it’s a great page-turner: “I can’t put it down!” Someone else in the group pointed out that she had, in fact, put it down to come to the book exchange.

51tn9o6ht5l-_sx258_bo1204203200_The Bee Cottage Story: How I Made a Muddle of Things and Decorated My Way Back to Happiness (Frances Schultz) — The member who ended up with this book hasn’t made a muddle of things, but she is in the middle of building and decorating a new house, so it’s perfect for her.

Some Luck (Jane Smiley) — The first in Smiley’s ambitious trilogy covering 100 years in the life of an Iowa farm family. A little tidbit of Book Thieves trivia: One of our members grew up in the same house (and same bedroom) in St. Louis where Jane Smiley spent her childhood.

M Train (Patti Smith) — The New York Times Book Review says “Smith’s  achingly beautiful new book is a kaleidoscopic ballad about the losses dealt out by time and chance and circumstance.”

Brooklyn (Colm ToíbÍn) — One of those unusual cases when the book and the movie are both outstanding.

Tales of Accidental Genius autographed copy (Simon Van Booy) — The member who brought this short story collection bought it at the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont. She left little notes in the book, quoting the bookseller who recommended it. The author is “cute, with a great accent” and “compassionate towards his fellow humans”. (I’ll leave it to you to decide which qualities are more important.)

cover-1A Little Life (Hanya Yanigihara) — Two members brought copies of this devastating and powerful book, and both were stolen three times, rendering them dead.

New Yorker magazine subscription — Magazine subscriptions are always a hit — and the New Yorker comes every week! (Plus, who doesn’t love the cartoons?)

We’ve been enjoying books and friendship for 22 years, but record-keeping has been . . . spotty. Here are links to the lists of books we exchanged in 2013 and 2014: Book Club Spotlight: The Book Thieves and The Book Thieves Strike Again.

As Garrison Keillor said, “A book is a gift you can open again and again.”

Happy Holidays!

 

 

 

Book Club Spotlight — The Breakfast Club (YA for Grownups)

imgresA children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.
C.S. Lewis

Last year, journalist Ruth Graham published a provocative article (“Against YA”) in Slate that inspired a tedious debate about whether adults should waste their time reading books written for young people. This isn’t a new dispute — 15 years ago,  in a New York Times essay called “Besotted With Potter”, William Safire said:

The trouble is that grown-ups are buying these books ostensibly to read to kids, but actually to read for themselves. As Philip Hensher warns in the Independent newspaper, this leads to ‘the infantilization of adult culture . . .’

It seems to me that a greater concern is prematurely exposing children to adult culture.

You can waste hours of your life googling “adults reading YA” — you’ll find countless impassioned responses to Graham’s piece. Or you can spend that time actually reading a YA novel and decide for yourself. Make sure you choose one that’s critically acclaimed, not the latest dystopian vampire thriller (unless that’s your thing). Read a recent award winner, or reread a favorite from your teenage years, and then decide if young adult literature is worth your time. I’ve reread A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and A Wrinkle in Time many times, gaining new insights with each reading.

Pamela Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review, is a member of “Kidlit”, a book club that reads children’s and young adult fiction. Paul says of the group: ” . . . none of it feels like homework. The themes are serious and the discussions intense, but the books are fast-paced and fun.” Author Gretchen Rubin started the group when she found that many of her friends and colleagues in the publishing industry shared her passion for children’s literature. Similar groups have sprung up all over the country — I’ve heard of groups called “Young at Heart”, “Forever Young”, and “Never Too Old”.

9781631060229In homage to movie director John Hughes, who understood adolescents so well, we at Lake Forest Book Store named our YA book group “The Breakfast Club”. (We meet in the morning, before the store opens.) After his retirement, Hughes lived in Lake Forest and was a frequent visitor to the bookstore. Always impeccably dressed in a beautiful sport coat with a pocket square, he was an avid reader and fascinating conversationalist. I highly recommend Kirk Honeycutt’s recent book,  John Hughes: A Life In Film: The Genius Behind The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Home Alone and More.

We’ve meet three times (September, October, and November). The books we read this fall, all award winners, inspired interesting discussions and would be good choices for any book club, whatever the focus of the club.

51VH2IQT8AL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

High school senior Hayley, daughter of an emotionally damaged Iraqi war veteran, struggles to live a “normal” life when she and her father, Andy, settle into his childhood home. Anderson’s father, who was stationed at Dachau during World War II, inspired her to write the story of a family affected by post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Odysseus had twenty years to shed his battle skin. My grandfather left the battlefield in France and rode home in a ship that crawled across the ocean slowly so he could catch his breath. I get on a plane in hell and get off, hours later, at home.

A good companion adult book would be Phil Klay’s short story collection, Redeployment, which won the National Book Award for fiction last year. 

51LOhJFau8LBelzhar by Meg Wolitzer

Jam’s parents don’t know what to do with her when she can’t seem to recover from her grief, so they send her to the Wooden Barn, a boarding school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent teenagers”. In a very unusual English class, she and her classmates begin to heal. Wolitzer skillfully incorporates fantasy into a novel that at first seems like a straightforward prep school story.

But it’s never just been the journals that have made the difference, I don’t think. It’s also the way the students are with one another . . . the way they talk about books and authors and themselves. Not just their problems, but their passions too. The way they form a little society and discuss whatever matters to them. Books light the fire—whether it’s a book that’s already written, or an empty journal that needs to be filled in.

Belzhar isn’t a retelling of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, but The Bell Jar plays an important part in the story. Wolitzer’s adult novels are excellent — particularly The Interestings, which follows a group of friends from adolescence through middle age. 

515e3HFpceLI’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

Teenage twins Noah and Jude, both artists, are as close as two people can be, but they compete for the love of their parents and the attention of a new friend. Nelson, a poet and literary agent turned YA author, gives us each twin’s perspective in this thoughtful, but well-plotted exploration of art and love.

Meeting your soul mate is like walking into a house you’ve been in before – you will recognize the furniture, the pictures on the wall, the books on the shelves, the contents of drawers: You could find your way around in the dark if you had to.

Irving Stone’s classic biographical novel, The Agony and the Ecstasy, is a perfect companion book, since sculpting out of stone plays an important role in I’ll Give You the Sun — and the twins’ mother has written her own book on Michelangelo.

We’re deciding now what to read for the first quarter of 2016. The 2015 National Book Award winner for Young People’s Literature, Challenger Deep, by Neil Shusterman, seems like an obvious choice. (I’m also intrigued by one of the finalists, Bone Gap, by Laura Ruby.) My co-leader Diane, who reads lots of YA, just read and loved the historical novel Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys (due February 2), recommended to us by our Penguin children’s book rep, Sheila Hennessey. Sheila also suggested Mosquitoland, by David Arnold, which has been on my list for a long time. We’d love other suggestions of YA books that grownups can learn from and enjoy!

10 Books to Get Your Book Club Talking

What makes a good book club book? I discussed this at length in another post (How to Choose Great Book Club Books) over a year ago, but on rereading that post I realize I didn’t clearly state one of the most important criteria: the best book club books are the ones your club is enthusiastic about reading. Yes, one of the best things about being part of a book club is reading books you wouldn’t ordinarily pick up — but that can be one of the worst things too. I would probably never have read Station Eleven — which is one of my all-time favorites — if it hadn’t been a book club selection, but I also would never have suffered through Interview With a Vampire, and I’m never getting back the hours of my life I wasted on Anne Rice. (In fairness to the long-defunct book club that picked Interview With a Vampire, I should mention that the club also selected Crossing to Safety, which remains one of my top recommendations for book groups.)

So, the first step is choosing books that the group looks forward to reading, rather than books that your members view as homework assignments. Keep in mind that you can’t please everyone, and almost every book club has at least one naysayer. The next challenge is making sure that your selections will inspire the kinds of discussions your book club is interested in having. Groups of friends (“private” clubs) often are more likely to talk about personal issues, while groups that meet in libraries, bookstores, community centers, etc. (“public” clubs) are more likely to concentrate on literary criticism. And although almost any book, in the right hands, can stimulate conversation, some books that are enormously fun to read are clunkers when it comes to discussion. Some books are too polarizing and may provoke arguments rather than civil discourse.

Here are 10 recent books that I think would get your book club talking.

9780062268679Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County by Kristen Green
Veteran journalist Green chronicles the years when Prince Edward County, Virginia closed its public schools rather than obey the federal mandate to desegregate — and tells the story of her family’s part in this shameful chapter of history.
Something to talk about: Green feels ashamed of her family’s actions both before she was born and during her childhood. Why do people feel guilty for past actions of family members?

did-you-ever-have-a-family-9781476798172_lgDid You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg
One of four American novels longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, this gorgeously written novel will keep you up late at night and it will break your heart.
Something to talk about: The book was reviewed twice in the New York Times  — in the Sunday book review section and then on Monday, by a different reviewer. The first review was positive and respectful, calling the novel “masterly” and “thoughtful”; the second was not just negative, but unkind and snarky: “Critics have arranged warm reviews around it like tea candles . . .  But the pocket where I generally put the nice things I want to say about a book is, in this instance, pretty empty.” Why do you think two reviews would vary to that degree? And is there ever any reason for a mean-spirited review?

55970100767930LStill Time by Jean Hegland
John Wilson, an English professor with Alzheimer’s disease, finds that his extensive knowledge and understanding of Shakespeare helps him make sense of an increasingly bewildering world. Like Lisa Genova’s Still Alice, Still Time is about a professor suffering from dementia — but it’s an entirely different, and I’d argue, a more subtle and thought-provoking novel.
Something to talk about: John named his estranged daughter Miranda, after the heroine of one of his favorite Shakespeare plays. How do the themes of forgiveness and reconciliation in The Tempest connect to John’s efforts to make amends at the end of his life?

9780804170154The Painter by Peter Heller
If these first lines don’t grab you, I don’t know what will: “I never imagined I would shoot a man. Or be a father. Or live so far from the sea.”  Jim Stegner is a painter of “outsider art” and fly fisherman with a propensity for violence who gets himself involved with some very bad people. Is it any coincidence that this character and Wallace Stegner (“the dean of Western writers”) share a last name?
Something to talk about: What caused Jim to become a violent man? What causes anyone to become violent?

02dde0b11247a412ef5ab2d18f7ba165Hold Still by Sally Mann
One of the best memoirs I’ve ever read — it doesn’t seem fair that Sally Mann is a talented writer and photographer! This is a book that must be read in print form — the photographs are integral to the story, and an e-book doesn’t do them justice. And if you discuss this book, someone must bring a book of Mann’s photographs to the meeting.
Something to talk about: What is art? (Now there’s a question you can never get tired of!)

9781250012579Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
What a jewel of a book! It’s classified as YA, but the story of two lonely teenagers who become friends and later fall in love will appeal to anyone who has a heart. It’s hard to believe that Rowell’s characters aren’t real people; their voices are original and true. It’s the kind of book you want to buy multiple copies of and give to everyone you know.
Something to talk about: What makes this novel a YA novel? Yes, it’s told from the perspective of two teenagers — but so are many adult books.

962ab117cc4ac2dd9054af8b597fde98The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scott
Following a family tragedy, 14-year-old Kevin is sent to spend the summer with his wise veterinarian grandfather in Medgar, Kentucky. Pops, whose life has brought him wisdom and an unwavering moral compass, will remind readers of Atticus Finch. Medgar is a depressed coal town facing a massive mountaintop removal operation that is blowing up the hills, backfilling the hollows — and deeply dividing the townspeople. The violent events of that summer will begin Kevin’s transformation from a wounded boy into an adult. Read this one instead of Go Set a Watchman!
Something to talk about: Each of the short chapters has a poetic title that was obviously chosen with care: “The Occasional Shifting of Boot Sole on Pine”; “The Price of Future Memories”; “Under the Protection of Red Cloud”. What does this add to the novel? Why do some authors number their chapters instead of giving them titles?

MSY_paperbackMy Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff
A delightful memoir about Rakoff’s stint as an assistant to J.D. Salinger’s literary agent, this book is, according to the Chicago Tribune, “a beautifully written tribute to the way things were at the edge of the digital revolution, and also to the evergreen power of literature to guide us through all of life’s transitions.” The book provides plenty of fodder for discussion on its own, but it would be fun to read in conjunction with a Salinger book or short story. It’s perfect for fans of Marjorie Hart’s Summer at Tiffany.
Something to talk about: What was your first “real” job, and what part did it play in your eventual career?

9780525427209Bettyville by George Hodgman
When George Hodgman lost his editorial job in New York, he returned to his hometown of Paris, Missouri (“population 1,246 and falling”) to care for his 91-year-old mother. Hodgman’s honest and affecting portrait of their relationship moved me both to laughter and tears. This memoir is a terrific companion to Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal — which I believe everyone should read, but may be too painful and intense to talk about in a group setting. Ann Patchett has this to say about Being Mortal: “I’m all for people having different tastes, liking different books, but everyone needs to read this book because at some point everyone is going to die, and it’s possible that someone we love is going to die before us.”
Something to talk about: George, of course, does a lot for Betty — he moves in with her and becomes her caretaker. But what does Betty do for George?

0395843677The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike and Katrina Kenison
I absolutely love short stories, and I can’t understand why they aren’t more popular — especially with book groups. They’re perfect for all those people who say they don’t have time to read. (For more on my thoughts on short stories, read 5 Reasons to Read Short Stories.) I recently joined a group that discusses short stories, and we spent a fascinating 90 minutes talking about “Bright and Morning Star”, written by Richard Wright in 1939. The group spends several months discussing stories from a particular decade in the 20th century. A group could choose any anthology of short stories or essays; the Best American Series (“the premier annual showcase for the country’s finest short fiction and nonfiction”)published by Mariner Books, will come out in early October. There are collections of travel writing, science and nature writing, sports writing, and more.

For further reading on choosing “discussable” books, please check out Is Your Book Club in a Rut? Here Are 10 Helpful Hints, by a librarian who’s experienced at working with book groups. “Steer clear of plot driven novels,” she advises, and I couldn’t agree more. The Girl on the Train is a terrific page-turner, but I’m not sure it would lend itself to an in-depth discussion. It would be fun to serve gin and tonics in honor of Rachel, although I don’t think the canned variety is available in the United States.

I’d love to know what your book club is reading this fall — and if you discussed any terrific books over the summer. I’m planning on compiling reading lists for different kinds of book clubs, and welcome your suggestions.

The Book Thieves Strike Again

UF7302Last week, my book club (a.k.a. “The Book Thieves”) met for our annual holiday book exchange. (For a full account of last year’s book exchange, as well as anecdotes about the club, click here!) Although we have a lot of rules regarding the mechanics of the exchange, we are loosey-goosey when it comes to the books we bring. Hardcover, paperback, new, old, fiction, nonfiction . . . all are welcome. This year, for the first time I can remember, there were no duplicates.

The award for the most-stolen book went to Alice Munro’s Family Furnishings, but I’m not sure if that was because our members love short stories or because the book was packaged with an adorable ornament. The ornament was a stack of books — I’ve tried to find it online, without success, but I found a similar one in the Bas Bleu catalog.

We had a wonderful evening at a local wine bar, complete with delicious appetizers and a chocolate cake for the December birthday girls. Of course, the friendship and camaraderie among book lovers was the best part. Here are the books we exchanged . . . or stole:

boston-girl-9781439199350_lgThe Boston Girl by Anita Diamant
The new novel by Diamant (author of The Red Tent) just released this month, which is unusual — very few books are published in December. Maybe it’s because The Red Tent miniseries aired on Lifetime on December 7 and 8? In The Boston Girl, 85-year-old Addie Baum, born in the North End of Boston to immigrant parents, tells the story of her life to her granddaughter.

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
I adored Kidd’s first novel, The Secret Life of Bees, but was disappointed with her second fiction effort, The Mermaid Chair. So I wasn’t sure I wanted to try The Invention of Wings — but everyone I’ve talked to who’s read it has loved it, and it’s received excellent reviews. Kidd has written what she calls a “thickly imagined story” based on the life of Sarah Grimke, a Southern slave owner turned abolitionist.

9781607742678

The Forest Feast by Erin Gleeson
I wasn’t familiar with this cookbook (or Gleeson’s blog) before our get-together, but the book is absolutely lovely, a combination of a cookbook and an art book. The recipes sound terrific, too.

My Paris Kitchen: Recipes and Stories by David Lebovitz
I love reading cookbooks (truth be told, I prefer reading them to cooking from them) and this book is part cookbook, part memoir — perfect! It’s on my wish list.

9781101874103Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014 by Alice Munro
People say they don’t like short stories, and then they read Alice Munro and they’re converts. I think we all need to have a story collection (or two) on our bedside tables! For more on that topic, please read Five Reasons to Read Short Stories.

What Would Jane Do? Quips and Wisdom from Jane Austen by the editors at Potter Style
“There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves, it is not my nature.”  (From Northanger Abbey)

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs
One of my favorites of 2014, this moving and thought-provoking examination of race, class, and education is the kind of book you want to discuss with someone as soon as you’ve finished it.

100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater by Sarah Ruhl
I was thrilled to receive a signed copy of this book (which has received much acclaim, including selection as one of the New York Times Book Review’s Notable Books) — I’ve enjoyed Ruhl’s plays, and I love essays. However, I felt a little bad that I had to steal it from a friend.9781627791458

Make It Ahead: A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook by Ina Garten
Who doesn’t love Ina Garten? I bought a copy as soon as the book came out, so I was glad I didn’t get it in the exchange. (The herbed pork tenderloin with apple chutney is very good, by the way.)

By the Book: Writers on Literature and the Literary Life from the New York Times Book Review by Pamela Paul
I brought this book because I enjoyed it so much. It’s a collection of columns from the “By the Book” column that appears in the Book Review every Sunday. Authors are asked a series of questions, such as “What book is on your nightstand right now?”, “What was the last book that made you cry?”, and “What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?” About 70 authors are included — everyone from David Sedaris to Carl Hiaasen to J.K. Rowling.

Happy Holidays to readers and book clubs everywhere!

 

How To Choose Great Book Club Books

coverI originally posted my tips for choosing book club books in February –probably not the month when most book clubs are deciding what to read for the upcoming year. I’m reposting in September because so many book clubs meet for an academic year, starting in the fall. I’ve also included a list of some great new books full of material for discussion, with an eye toward books that may have been overlooked.

“What’s our next book?” — the dreaded question facing every book club. Here are some suggestions to help increase your chances of choosing a book that will inspire a fun and enlightening discussion:

  • Decide if you’re a democracy or a dictatorship. Will your group vote on the books, or will each member be given the chance to make an executive decision on your monthly selection?
  • Don’t worry about whether everyone will like the book. Some of the best book club discussions happen when not everyone likes the book. And sometimes a member who came into the meeting with a negative opinion of the book goes home with a new appreciation for it.
  • And don’t worry about liking fictional characters. You’re not befriending them, you’re discussing why they behave as they do.
  • Don’t be afraid of nonfiction. I think nonfiction books often provide the best material for discussion. Just stay away from books that are overtly political.
  • Unless you’re a very literary group, choose books that focus on interesting issues. Your book club meeting most likely isn’t going to resemble a college English seminar. You’ll probably have more cover-2fun talking about the ethical problems presented in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks than the imagery in The Age of Innocence.
  • Pick a book that is the right length for the amount of time your group has to read it. Don’t choose The Goldfinch if your group is meeting in three weeks.
  • Don’t choose The Luminaries (or anything of similar density) if your group is the type that discusses the book for 15 minutes and then moves on to more important things — like where you should meet the next month.
  • Beware of books that one of your members describes as “uplifting” or “feel-good”. There won’t be much to talk about.
  • There will always be people in your book group who label everything you suggest “depressing”. Don’t fret about it. Almost every book that is worthy of discussion will seem depressing to these people.
  • Take advantage of all the resources that are available online and in your community. There are countless websites devoted to book clubs, including lists of suggested books. Your local library and bookstore will be happy to make recommendations for you, and to let you know what other groups are reading.
  • Ask your friends (especially out-of-town friends) what their book clubs have read and how successful their choices were. Post “Any great book club books you can recommend?” as your Facebook status.
  • Consider organizing a book exchange. Have everyone bring a book he or she has recently read and trade books. At the next meeting, briefly review all the books and if one stands out, choose it for an in-depth discussion.
  • TheBoysintheBoatLeave some flexibility in your schedule; don’t choose books for the whole year — or if you do, be prepared to make changes.
  • If your group is having a hard time finishing books — or agreeing on book choices — read a short story or an essay. You could even spend the year reading The Best American Short Stories 2014 or The Best American Essays 2014. Think about choosing books that have won major prizes (National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize, Man Booker) or have received good reviews in publications you trust.
  • Think about choosing a book that has a film adaptation; read the book, watch the movie, and compare. This past summer, my group read and watched The Fault in Our Stars and The Hundred-Foot Journey. We are planning on reading Wild this fall in preparation for the movie release.
  • Couples’ book groups can be a lot of fun, but make sure you decide on a book that appeals to both men and women.  Our group had a great discussion of John Boyne’s The Absolutist. (You can’t go wrong with The Boys in the Boat or Unbroken.)

Here are 10 books that I think book groups would enjoy reading and discussing. Some of them have been popular, but others have been overlooked. I’d love to know what your group has been reading!

The Enchanted (Rene Denfeld) — Magical realism on death row . . . a mesmerizing reading experience.

All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr) — The best World War II novel — actually, the best novel — I’ve read in a long, long time. It’s the story of a blind girl in France and a conscripted German soldier, and how their lives intersect.

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital (Sheri Fink) — The author is a physician and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who’s written a gripping account of the life-and-death decisions medical staff at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans were forced to make during Hurricane Katrina.

The Empathy Exams (Leslie Jamison) — Collection of essays about a wide variety of topics — poverty tourism, phantom diseases, incarceration, street violence, reality TV — but with a common thread: how empathy makes us fully human.

we-are-called-to-rise-9781476738963_lgOrange Is the New Black (Piper Kerman) — I haven’t seen the TV series yet, but I hear it’s very different from the book. Kerman’s memoir of her year in a women’s prison raises many questions about our criminal justice system.

You Should Have Known (Jean Hanff Korelitz) — Grace Sachs is a therapist and the author of a popular book cautioning women to take a good hard look at potential husbands. But it turns out Grace hasn’t taken her own advice, when her own husband disappears.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Anthony Marra) — A powerful novel about the human cost of warfare in the recent wars in Chechnya.

We Are Called to Rise (Laura McBride) — The lives of four very different Las Vegas residents (a young immigrant boy, a social worker, a war veteran turned police officer, and the officer’s mother) in a heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful story.

The End of Your Life Book Club (Will Schwalbe) — When Schwalbe’s mother was undergoing chemotherapy, she and her son found that talking about books helped them connect.

The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates (Wes Moore) — The true story of two boys names Wes Moore who grew up within a few blocks of each other in Baltimore — one became a convicted murderer and one became a Rhodes Scholar.