Book Club Spotlight — The Breakfast Club

9780143124726MMany years ago, some friends and I started meeting for breakfast whenever one of our birthdays rolled around. We were all busy mothers of grade school children, with jobs and volunteer commitments, and breakfast fit nicely into our schedules. We crowded into booths at our local version of a diner, Egg Harbor, and exchanged funny cards and little gifts. As our children got older and our homes became neater, we started getting together at each other’s houses, serving bacon, eggs, and pancakes along with endless cups of coffee. We also started meeting when it wasn’t even anyone’s birthday. We even went out for dinner a few times — but never lunch. The Breakfast Club does not do lunch.

At one of these get-togethers, we talked about starting a book club. Along with families, work, vacation plans, community goings-on, and home renovations, we always end up talking about books and movies. So we decided our club would not be an ordinary book club; it would have a twist. We would read books that were related to movies, and then we’d watch the movies together.  Here’s my original email sales pitch to the group:

A friend in Winnetka belongs to a movie/book club. They choose a movie that’s based on a book, and everyone has a choice: either read the book and see the movie, just read the book, or just see the movie. It doesn’t matter. Sometimes they go to the movie as a group (as many of them as possible) or watch the movie together at someone’s house, or sometimes they all end up going separately. Their recent choice was The Book Thief. We could do Philomena or Monuments Men — both based on books. Or we could read a book that is related to the movie — for example, Dallas Buyers Club isn’t based on a book, but it would pair with Abraham Verghese’s My Own Country (about treating AIDS patients). I just checked the movie releases for this month and there’s one due out at the end of the month called Nymphomaniac Part I. Not sure if it’s based on a book (?!)the-lost-child-of-philomena-lee-978033051836902

As anyone knows who’s tried to organize a book club, choosing the book is the most difficult task. I won’t bore you with the details of the decision-making process, but I will tell you that the email chain was very long. (That might be because the discussion also involved choosing a date for our inaugural meeting.) There are seven of us, all with full schedules and strong opinions.

Finally, we chose a book/movie AND a date/willing hostess. Despite one member’s wish to avoid anything sad or depressing, we picked Philomena. I don’t remember the exact conversation, but somehow we convinced her it wasn’t that sad.  Philomena is the true story of an Irish girl whose family abandons her to cruel nuns when she becomes pregnant out of wedlock.  The nuns force her to give her child up for adoption and prevent her from ever seeing him again, or even knowing if he is all right. (Honestly, you couldn’t come up with a more sad story than that.) It was a great choice and inspired an interesting discussion (and a few tears).  Our discussion centered on the completely different perspectives of the book and the film. The book focuses on the life of Philomena’s son, Michael Hess — as an adoptee, closeted gay man, and Republican political advisor. Philomena herself is peripheral to the book (originally titled The Lost Child of Philomena Lee), which was written by a British journalist, Martin Sixsmith. The movie, on the other hand, is Philomena’s story — and Martin Sixsmith’s.

9780142424179MBuoyed by the success of our first meeting, we chose another book/movie combination — The Fault In Our Stars. If anything is more tragic than a young woman forced to relinquish her beloved son, it’s two teenagers with terminal cancer. Our group loved John Green’s beautiful novel, and was anxious to see the screen adaptation. One of my favorite aspects of the book is Hazel’s obsession with a novel:

Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.

In the case of The Fault In Our Stars, the screenplay remains almost completely faithful to the book. It didn’t occur to most of us that we would be the only “mature” women in the theater, surrounded by groups of lovesick teenage girls, alternately giggling and crying. (One girl behind us said, “He’s so cute! He’s so cute!” almost every time teen heartthrob Ansel Elgort appeared on screen.) The youthful audience applauded when Hazel and Gus exchanged their first kiss, and got out of their seats many, many times for trips to the snack bar and restroom. I was so distracted that I did not need the Kleenex that my friends thoughtfully passed my way.

One of the things we discussed over dinner, after the movie, was whether movie versions of books are ever better than the books. I said I thought there were quite a few, but I could only come up with one example on the spot — Sarah’s Key. Now that I’ve had a chance to reflect on it, I’ve thought of some more: The Devil Wears Prada . . . The Shawshank Redemption . . . Mystic River.  I’m sure there are others, but those are the ones that came to mind. We are looking forward to seeing the movie Wild, based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, this fall. I liked the book, but wasn’t wild about it (sorry! couldn’t resist); will the movie, starring Reese Witherspoon, be superior? Now, we need to make a choice for our summer get-together. Two that sound good to me are Tracks and The Hundred-Foot Journey.  Suggestions are welcome!








Tips for Choosing Book Club Books

There’s plenty to discuss in The Deepest Secret.

“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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. And don’t worry about liking fictional characters. You’re not befriending them, you’re discussing why they behave as they do.
  4. Don’t be afraid of nonfiction. I think nonfiction books often provide the best material for discussion.
  5. cover-2Unless 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 fun talking about the ethical problems presented in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks than the imagery in The Age of Innocence.
  6. Pick a book that is the right length for the amount of time your group has to read it. Don’t choose The Luminaries if your group is meeting in three weeks.
  7. 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 next month.
  8. 9780547554839_hresBeware of books that one of your members describes as “uplifting” or “feel-good”. There won’t be much to talk about.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. Leave some flexibility in your schedule; don’t choose books for the whole year.
  13.  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 2013 or The Best American Essays 2013.
  14. 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.

cover-1I always look to Publishers Weekly for book recommendations; if a book gets a starred review in PW, I pay attention. Carla Buckley’s The Deepest Secret got a starred review, which doesn’t surprise me; the reviewer called it “superb”, and I agree! I read the book last fall, because I was going to meet Carla at a dinner hosted by Random House to introduce authors and editors to Chicago-area booksellers. The Deepest Secret is the story of Eve Lattimore, a parent who makes a terrible error in judgment — and then compounds that mistake by keeping it secret, in an effort to protect her chronically ill son. Much more than a page-turner, The Deepest Secret is a morally complex exploration of parental love. It’s a rare and wonderful treat to read a suspenseful novel that is also character-driven. Book clubs will argue about the choices that Eve, her family, and friends make; there are no easy answers.

I started reading the book the day before I was due to meet Carla. I arrived at the dinner nearly 30 minutes early (very unusual for me) and sat in my car reading the book until the appointed time. When I saw people starting to enter the restaurant, I stashed the book in my purse and joined them. I introduced myself to the first person I saw — who turned out to be Carla Buckley! I told her that her new book was truly “unputdownable” and that I hated to tear myself away from it; I’m not sure she believed me until I showed her my book, with a page dog-eared about halfway through. Carla (along with another terrific author, Jenny Milchman) will be coming back to the Chicago area on May 8 — please join us (with or without your book club) for a great discussion. No need to choose the books — they are already chosen for you! Jenny is the author of two suspense novels: Cover of Snow, a psychological thriller about a young wife in upstate New York investigating her husband’s mysterious suicide, and Ruin Falls (due in April)  about a mother desperately searching for her missing children. (Cover of Snow, Jenny’s debut novel, also received a starred review in Publishers Weekly.)


Book Club Spotlight — The Book Thieves

Some book clubs are very well organized. They have regularly scheduled meetings, choose a year’s worth of books at a time (sometimes according to a clever theme) , and assign a leader to every discussion.  That is not how my book club operates. We meet every six weeks or so, and the date is chosen via email poll. We don’t like to choose our books too far ahead, because who knows what terrific book we will all want to read six months from now?

9781594204784HThis year, I volunteered to serve as the secretary of our book club. (Or was I drafted? I can’t recall.) My performance has not been up to par, even by our book club’s relatively low standards. In fact, I neglected my duties so badly that one of our members seized control and organized our annual Christmas book swap. Because she is a very nice person, she did this in a kind and tactful way, sending me the following emails:

Email #1: Are we having a book exchange in December or did that get past us all? Just wanted to make sure I did not miss anything.

Email #2: Do you want me to send an email to the group and see if we could get an impromptu group together the week of the 10th? I am happy to work on that if you think that is fun.

I gratefully accepted the offer, and last week 12 of us gathered for our favorite book club tradition — the holiday book exchange, also known as book thievery. I know many other book club organize similar exchanges over the holidays, but I wonder if our club takes ours just a little more seriously. The element of thievery certainly adds to the drama (and the fun). One of our members is the self-appointed referee and makes sure that the “official” rules are followed.

Each member brings a wrapped book. It can be any book (hardcover or paperback) — a novel, biography, cookbook, or even a beautiful coffee table book. Once someone brought what was once euphemistically called a “marriage manual” — I’m told that book is still in the back of another member’s closet, waiting for the right opportunity to reappear. 51GHq5y52OL._SX200_Sometimes there are add-on items — an adorable Santa carrying a stack of books was very popular one year. Everyone takes a number (this year from 1 to 12), and #1 is the first to choose. #2 then can decide whether to choose another wrapped book or “steal” from #1 . . . and so on, up to #12, who has the final pick. I think this type of gift exchange is called a “Yankee swap”. Our group is very fond of stealing, and our referee has to enforce rules about the number of times a book can be stolen. One of our members spoke for all of us when she said:

The book exchange is definitely a highlight because I always find it interesting to see what books people choose to bring and what is the “hot” book/gift each year.  The stealing and maneuvering always makes me laugh!  I also like seeing the different iterations that turn up — magazines, book related gifts, and book/gift combos!

This year, we had a terrific selection of books to steal — I think the only thing they have in common is that they were all published in 2013:

  • The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt) — Two members brought copies, and both were repeatedly stolen.
  •  Wave (Sonali Deraniyagala) — Just named one of the 10 best books of the year by the New York Times.
  • Dog Songs (Mary Oliver) and Dog Shaming (Pascale Lemire)
  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Neil Gaiman)
  • The Burgess Boys (Elizabeth Strout)
  • The Last First Day (Carrie Brown)
  • A Literary Christmas: An Anthology
  • Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary Twist (Tim Federle) — I stole this one and I’m happy I did — Romeo and Julep, anyone?
  • This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (Ann Patchett) — My contribution!
  • The Conquest of Everest (George Lowe)
  • Subscription to Vanity Fair — Creatively packaged in a wine bag.

Not only did everyone go home with a new book, we agreed on our next three book club selections. We are all anxious to read The Goldfinch — any book that’s received such extraordinary acclaim is a perfect choice for us. Several of our members have read Sutton by J.R. Moehringer, and thought our husbands would enjoy it as well — so that’s what we will read for our couples’ get-together in February. And we are th_a2948c4fc82083353093e0133d3393f1_1364311155_magicfields_HB__BOOK_COVERIMAGE_1_1looking forward to discussing Alice McDermott’s Someone, the quiet and lovely story of an “ordinary” woman examining her life.

Our book club has been meeting (and stealing) since 1993. I asked our members to share their favorite memories of the past 20 years:

  • The evening when a husband and wife reviewed (together) The Great Gatsby — everyone came dressed in 1920s attire. He had read the book 59 times and was a Gatsby fanatic/expert!
  • The contentious discussion of Atlas Shrugged; some of the most vociferous opinions were expressed by those who had not made their way through that very long book.
  • The time when a member brought her sick infant to a meeting; as she said, “nothing comes between me and my book club!”
  • The discussion of Into Thin Air that was interrupted when a member received a call that her house was on fire.
  • The very thorough review of The Shipping News, a book that some members weren’t enthusiastic about at first but grew to appreciate.
  • The couples’ discussion of E.L. Doctorow’s The March, complete with a Union table with a blue tablecloth and a Confederate table with a gray tablecloth.
  • The field trip we took to Oak Park to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio, after reading Loving Frank.

We are looking forward to the next 20 years of reading, friendship, and theft!

For information on Yankee swaps: Of course, you can make (and enforce) your own rules!

Online Book Roundtable

9781616203160Would you like to participate in a book club that has no meetings . . . no expectations . . . no rules? Welcome to the Online Book Roundtable! I’m not calling it a book club, because the word “club” implies that there are members, requirements, and an organizational structure. The Roundtable will have none of those pesky things. What we’ll do is choose a book each month, and as we read, we’ll comment on the book online (using the “comments” section of Books on the Table). The comment section does NOT require you to provide your name or email address. If you don’t want to provide public comments, please email me at and I’ll incorporate your comments anonymously in the discussion. I’ll provide reviews and related information about the book, and supply some discussion questions as we go along. We will plan on about a 4-6 week period from the time the book is chosen until we finish our discussion and choose the next book.

Here are a couple of interesting links about online book clubs:

The first book selection will be The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro:

Almost twenty-five years after the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s infamous art heist—still the largest unsolved art theft in history—one of the stolen Degas paintings is delivered to the Boston studio of a young artist named Claire Roth. Claire, whose reputation has been tarnished by scandal and who now makes her living reproducing famous works of art for a popular online retailer, has entered into a Faustian bargain with Aiden Markel, a powerful gallery owner. She agrees to forge the Degas in exchange for a one-woman show in his renowned gallery. But as she begins her work, she starts to suspect that this long-missing masterpiece—the very one that had been hanging at the Gardner for one hundred years—may itself be a forgery.

As Claire searches for the truth about the painting’s origins, she finds herself in a desperate race through a labyrinth of trapdoors, dead ends, and deceit, where secrets hidden since the late nineteenth century may be the only evidence that can save her from incrimination. Blending art history with passions of the heart, B. A. Shapiro allows us to smell the oil paint, see the brush strokes, feel the artist’s ambition and the collector’s fanaticism. As she explores the ingenious techniques of forgery and reimagines historical relationships, she reveals both the beauty of the artist’s vision and the ugliness the desire for great art can unleash.

The Art Forger is a thrilling novel about seeing—and not seeing—the secrets that lie beneath the canvas.

B. A. Shapiro lives in Boston and teaches fiction writing at Northeastern University.

Please feel free to comment any time! Since we’re entering into the busy holiday season, let’s read and discuss The Art Forger through mid-December, and then start with a new book in early January.

If your book club has discussed The Art Forger, I’d love to hear about it. The Lake Forest Book Store book club will be talking about the book next Tuesday (11/19) and I’ll report on that meeting.


Book Club Spotlight — The “No Regrets” Book Club

Actually, this book club isn’t called the “No Regrets” Book Club. I don’t think it has an official name, but I thought that should be its name because when I asked the members to tell me their favorite and least favorite selections,  I got variations on this response:

There has not been a single book that I have regretted reading and I have learned something from every book and everyone in the group through  our discussions, even involving books we haven’t liked very much.

cover-1I love this group’s attitude, energy, and enthusiasm — not to mention their longevity. They’ve been going strong for almost 20 years and have read about 180 books — classics, poetry, plays, memoirs, and of course, current fiction and nonfiction.  They are open to reading almost anything they think will inspire good conversation. Members of the group have come and gone throughout the years, but there is a core group of about 12 women — including two published authors!

The “No Regrets” readers have planned many creative book-related field trips. They have attended the Chicago Humanities Festival, where Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes) was a speaker. They have gone to the Steppenwolf Theater to see The Book Thief adapted as a play and to the local multiplex to see the movie version of The Great Gatsby. When a book club selection is set in another country known for its cuisine (France, Japan, China . . .), of course they must meet in an appropriate restaurant. And they have attended events at Lake Forest College and local libraries.

Every September, the group chooses books to read for the next nine months. Each member brings book suggestions and presents them to the group. The selection is democratic — the books with the most votes win. They always make sure to include a classic and a nonfiction book. Here’s their reading list for this fall and winter:

  • Me Before You (Jojo Moyes) — contemporary fiction
  • The Heretic’s Daughter (Kathleen Kent) — historical fiction
  • Listening Below the Noise: The Transformative Power of Silence (Anne LeClaire) — spirituality
  • The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett) — classic children’s fiction
  • The Fault in Our Stars (John Green) — YA
  • The End of Your Life Book Club (Will Schwalbe) — memoir

What an interesting and diverse list!  “A little something for everyone,” said a member.  I particularly loved The End of Your Life Book Club — I’ll be curious to hear about that discussion. The book is a tender, moving memoir of Will Schwalbe’s deep and abiding relationship with his mother, and how books brought them even closer together. It’s a celebration of the transformative power of books. Reading is a solitary activity — but, as all book club members know, there is joy in sharing the books that you love. J.R. Moehringer, author of The Tender Bar, has this to say about The End of Your Life Book Club:

Will Schwalbe’s brave and soulful elegy to his remarkable mother, his recollection of their sparklingly literate conversations, is a timely reminder that one exceptional person, or one exceptional book, can be a torch coverin the darkness.

In November, the group meets at Lake Forest Book Store for a book review night to get a head start on Christmas shopping. (As Garrison Keillor said, “A book is a gift you can open again and again”.)  In December, the regular discussion is followed by a wrapped paperback grab bag: “It is great fun and everyone tries to bring interesting books to choose from,” according to a member.

The last meeting of the book club year takes place in June, when they meet at Ragdale, an artists’ community and retreat located on the country estate of architect Howard Van Doren Shaw. The porch of the main house provides a beautiful place to enjoy dinner, and the library is a cozy and peaceful spot for a book discussion . . . and, I imagine, reflection on a wonderful year of reading and friendship.

cover-2In no particular order, here are 10 favorite book club picks from the “No Regrets” club:

  • Crossing to Safety (Wallace Stegner)
  • Cutting for Stone (Abraham Verghese)
  • To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
  • The Samurai’s Garden (Gail Tsukiyama)
  • Water for Elephants (Sara Gruen)
  • Year of Wonders (Geraldine Brooks)
  • Angela’s Ashes (Frank McCourt)
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot)
  • The Red Tent (Anita Diamant)
  • The Aviator’s Wife (Melanie Benjamin) paired with A Gift From the Sea (Anne Morrow Lindbergh)

I’d love to feature more book clubs in Books on the Table — please tell me about your book club! Please fill out the contact form below, or email me at

Special thanks to Leeni Ellis for telling me about her wonderful book club!

Book Clubs — Women Only?

It is love and friendship, the sanctity and celebration of our relationships, that not only support a good life, but create one. Through friendships, we spark and inspire one another’s ambitions.  Wallace Stegner

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (before email existed), my husband and I and another couple decided to form a coed book club. We thought we would start with just the four of us, to see how it went. The first task, of course, was to choose a book that all four of us would enjoy and that would inspire a good discussion. The two men went out for a weekday lunch, and my husband came home that evening and reported that they had decided on The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham. I was impressed that the two men had stepped up to the plate and made a decision, and started reading the book right away.

292408Several weeks later, when our friends showed up at the door for dinner and our book discussion, I thought it was strange that John was dressed as a cowboy and was carrying a can of baked beans. I remember thinking that most people bring wine, but that canned beans certainly were a more creative hostess gift. I got my legal pad with discussion questions, made sure everyone was settled with a cocktail by the fire, and jumped right in to the discussion.  How did the war affect the characters in this book? What was the role of religion in the book? What was the author critiquing in both American and European society? Our friends had nothing to say in response, and in fact, looked a little confused. I think they finally said something about the pioneers who settled the American West. At that point, I had to say what we were all thinking: “What book did you two read?” Well . . . it turned out they read Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner.  (By the way, one of my favorite books!) We’re still not sure how the men walked away from lunch with two very different ideas of what book they had chosen!

Many book clubs, including my own, have a special couples’ meeting once a year where men are invited. This usually involves much debate about what book will appeal to both genders and lots of emails about the date, location, and dinner menu. The books chosen tend to be nonfiction or historical fiction — The Absolutist (John Boyne), The March (E.L. Doctorow), The Devil in the White City (Erik Larson), Shadow Divers (Robert Kurson), The Healing of America (T.R. Reid). We’ve had some great discussions, and some so-so discussions . . . just like any book club meeting.

In Karen Joy Fowler’s wonderful novel, The Jane Austen Book Club, the book club consists of five women and one man. (The man, Grigg, is a science fiction fan who has never read Jane Austen and is coerced into the group.) I can’t imagine many coed book groups reading Jane Austen . . .

Men often poke fun at women’s book clubs. My husband recently received an invitation — for the two of us — to a golf trip reunion. (He went on this trip in June — yes, less than four months ago — and this group has already seen the need for several “reunions”.) I quote from the invitation: “We know some of you ladies have Book Club — AKA Wine Club — then come before . . . This will be a guys’ version of Book Club/Wine Club.”

There’s a website that sells book club themed paraphernalia (T-shirts, mugs, tote bags, cocktail napkins). These items feature slogans such as “My drinking club has a serious book problem”, “Read between the wines”, “I love book club — good friends, good books, good wine”, My favorite item is a pair of MEN’S shoes that are embroidered with the saying, “My book club can drink your book club under the table” (,928979346). I’m not sure what the market for those is! Maybe women with large feet?

In an article in the Huffington Post ( Delia Lloyd lists five reasons to join a book club. The final reason is:

Sometimes it’s fun just to chat. Finally – all book clubs – no matter how serious, entail some chit chat. And that’s just how it should be. Whether or not you’re in one that’s all-women – as seems to be the norm – or contains “the male element” (as someone ominously referred to men recently…yikes! sounds contagious!) we all thrive on friendship as we grow older. And book clubs are a great excuse to make and keep friends.

No excuses needed! Enjoy your book club and the friendships it fosters.

For more on women and book clubs: Very funny “discussion questions” for a hypothetical book club. A couple of my favorites:

 Book-club members who have actually read this book have called its plot “depressing,” “disgusting,” and “too much about poor people.” Does this suggest that you, as a reader, have a moral obligation to say that you liked the book?

On page 2, the author refers to “supper.” In books, food is often used as a symbol. Try to think of a time when food, or a particular meal, has been important to you. Then keep it to yourself.