Sometimes I think of this blog as my own personal book club. I pick a book, read it, and then discuss it with – myself. That’s the writing part. What happens next, though, is I’ll receive a text from a friend who’s read a post and continue the “conversation” or someone will comment online about some aspect of a post with an interesting thought. So perhaps this blog is, in fact, kind of a “real life book club.” Readers and I “meet” outside of a regular gathering, but the jumping off point for discussion is – hey ho – right here. (Ironically, the very first thing I posted here was entitled Alone With My Books?)
I’ve been in book clubs off and on since my early 20s, and I don’t mean to be a spoil sport, but I’m generally not a fan of the ones I’ve been in where people don’t actually read the book. I know, I know, that is the ultimate mommy/girls night out shtick: “No one ever reads the book! LOLOLOLOLOL….Pass the wine!” Call me a glutton for punishment (or maybe just antisocial), but if we’re meeting because of a book, let’s, I dunno, discuss it. We can go out for drinks or coffee to chat another time. (Maybe this is why I liked Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine so much. #superserious #superliteral)
So what makes a good book club book? Here’s my unscientific criteria:
- Characters that evoke split emotions from readers (“I loved her”/”I hated her”) – Eleanor Oliphant is a good example because readers initially find the protagonist quirkily endearing or super annoying.
- A story that weaves in personal and political contemporary themes in an engaging story. (Little Bee by Chris Cleave [titled The Other Hand in Ireland/UK] is a good example.)
- A book that illustrates a completely different way of life from the majority of the group’s culture/background/lifestyle. (I can’t really give you an example here because – surprise – we don’t all have the same culture/background/lifestyle.)
- A classic or equally challenging book that forces readers to work hard for the reward – and then debate whether or not it was worth it. (A contemporary example for me would be the 2013 Man Booker winner The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. That is one I did not finish.)
(Btw, in 2014 I wrote a post about book clubs/communal reading and you can read it here. Hint: It’s also about a book that I think is a model for the perfect book club pick.)
I’m not convinced that the majority of the books you’d find on Target’s shelves are going to be great book club picks. (Sorry, I pick on Target a lot. I have a love/hate relationship with this place after living beyond its reach for so long. I love not having to go to 7 stores for extremely specific school supplies, but then again, Ireland didn’t require much except for a certain type of handwriting pen. Chicken? Egg? You tell me.) A lot of these books might be suspenseful or maybe a beautiful story, but what are you supposed to discuss? Just whether or not you like it? That’s for a fitting room, not a book club. (I know, party pooper, table for one.)
So, unless your group is wedded to the most of-the-minute new releases, here are my Top 10 Book Club picks, straight from the archives of A Lifely Read.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Oh man. I loved this book. Oprah does too. (And guess what: I bought my copy at Target.) So why don’t you just read it already? There is so much here for great, great discussion. One of the most telling things about this book is that the entire plot hinges on the wrongful incarceration of a black man, yet Jones masterfully avoids true, direct “preaching.” Not because she should avoid it, but because she is just that skillful of a writer. It’s all illustrative and not instructive, and it is pretty powerful. (Oh yeah, you can discuss marriage and home too.)
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
So, I wasn’t the biggest fan of this book overall. HOWEVER, I was quick to note that it would be very appropriate for a current events class and would be the perfect book club book. “This is a great book for a current events class as it can serve as a starting point for discussion about migration, what constitutes an ‘American,’ the different ways that ‘dreams’ manifest themselves to people, and the desperate reality facing migrants who want to stay in the United States.” (Discuss.)
Empire Falls by Richard Russo
This is the type of book I compare to an expansive John Irving or Wally Lamb novel. Lots of characters, lots of action, and lots of symbolism. A river falls into all three of those categories – good stuff! Bonus: I mention the Duggars in this post. Hey, it was 2014, I was living far, far away, and I was into all this juicy stuff. (Cavedweller by Dorothy Allison is similar to Empire Falls in the sense that it’s a big, sweeping story, although you’ve got a cave, not a river.)
Women of Sand and Myrrh by Hanan al-Shaykh
I read this book after I started following a blog called Arab Lit: Arabic Literature and Translation. I remember perusing posts and thinking, “Man, I know nothing about these books she’s writing about.” So I downloaded Women of Sand and Myrrh, written by a Lebanese author. Going with the “I know nothing about this” theme, another good one (that I happened to read for a book club in Ireland) is The Yacoubian Building by Egyptian author Alaa al-Aswany. I didn’t write about it for this blog, but I did write about it as well as my thoughts on reading for The Curator. (For me, Native American writing also falls in the “I want to know more” category. I’ve always loved Sherman Alexie, but his fall from grace made me realize that, duh, there are other Native writers I should be reading. [I still would recommend his books and think they would make good book club choices: Have you and/or your teenagers read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian?])
Family Life by Akhil Sharma
This semi-autobiographical novel (does that make sense?) is about a family that emigrates from India and lands in New York. Like The Female Persuasion (below), Family Life plays with the idea of “success,” especially when discussing immigration, i.e. our country’s odd fascination with “model immigrants.” There’s some tragedy thrown into this book, though, so go right to it and start discussing what “luck” has to do with “success.”
The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson
Here’s a comedic romp which is also – weirdly, but deftly – a good take on geopolitics. It’s a little bit crazy, and I think people are often hot or cold about how they feel about it, but like I said, I think that makes a great book club book.
Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi
OK, here’s an example of a book set in a world very different than my own. Quick cheat sheet for your discussion: I started my post about this book being kind of bothered that a magazine had compared Selasi to Chimamanda Ngozi and Zadie Smith presumably just because they were women of African descent with ties to America and/or the UK. Fair comparison, or no? (And you’re off!)
Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum
Anna is most definitely a “love her or hate her” character. If you have moved around a lot – particularly as an expat – this is a good one. How does one find “home” when you’re melancholy? What – or who – is responsible for our happiness? What if you’re unhappy no matter where you live? Read all about it here.
The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer
Wolitzer’s latest book tackles feminism (comparing a new wave to the Ms. Era), parental expectations (or lack thereof), and American notions of success, especially when it comes to selecting a college.
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
This is a “quiet” book and maybe an odd choice for a book club. Robinson is perhaps best known for Gilead, but I think this is my favorite. Ruth and Lucille are two sisters inching their way toward adulthood while being shuttled between relatives – eventually ending up with their eccentric Aunt Sylvie. Typical of Robinson, her writing is gentle, but as you start to unwrap the story, you realize there is a lot of profound life-as-poetry. Discuss what it means to find a “better” life. (You know, just some light reading.)
Honorable Mention — books I believe would be fantastic choices, but haven’t written about:
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
TransAtlantic by Colum McCann
The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright