A phone call from a friend DESPERATE for books worthy to recommend to her book club (which was meeting in 20 minutes at her home), persuaded us to tackle the topic of great book club picks.
So, first off, what makes for a good choice? Conflict and controversy? A subject that’s sure to provoke disagreement? A topic that relates to people’s lives? Coming of age stories? A short book that everyone can finish? A long novel that compels you to just keep reading? A book you would not have read unless your book club made you do it? We’d answer yes to all of the above.
For purposes of our list below, we define great book club books as books that lend themselves to interesting discussions. Sometimes these books may be long, some short, some are genres that we normally do not pick up on our own but do so because someone we respect suggested it, some are by women authors, some by men, some by authors who are barely out of their teens.
So, here are some of our favorites for great discussions:
Substantive Reads – Fiction
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer (2013) – This engrossing, entertaining story follows a group of friends from the moment they meet at summer camp, through how they somehow stay together as they go to separate colleges, get married – sometimes to each other, try to live in New York City on entry-level salaries, find and lose success, become parents, face an assortment of crisis points and well, just live their lives. Told from the perspective of Jules Jacobson, a girl from the suburbs who infiltrates a group of sophisticated young Manhattanites when sent to their camp on a scholarship, this novel is populated by complex, and well “interesting” characters who come together and apart as their lives and their interpretations of New York City change. In fact, “the City” itself is a character changing as mayors come and go, crime increases/decreases, AIDS epidemic enters, finances collapse and twin towers fall.
Ghana Must Go by Talye Selasi (2013) – An incredibly memorable modern tale of a family – The Sais. Their story (and this novel) begins in Africa, and follows how their subsequent pursuit of the American dream shapes their lives. Page one starts with the sudden death of the main character – Kweku Sai, an incredible surgeon, but failed father and husband. It then unfolds backwards and forwards through the eyes and voices of his first wife and their four children. It all hinges on Kweku’s reaction to a failure endured in his pursuit of his American dream. His response shatters his family, yet also makes them all uniquely themselves. This is a truly global tale – Accra, Lagos, London, and New York. It is also truly beautifully written; so much so, that we slowed our reading to make it last longer.
The Writing on the Wall by WD Wetherell (2012) - Three different women from three different eras inhabit a house in Northern New England. Each is trying to deal with the hand life has recently dealt them. Along the way the latter two residents discover the stories of the woman(en) who came before them. A gem of a book that truly shows the power of words and stories.
Distant Land of My Father (2002) by Bo Caldwell – Good for all-men clubs, all-women clubs, mixed gender, father/son and mother/daughter clubs. Gorgeous prose and insight into 21st Century life in China and LA. The plot? The consequences that result when a man’s love for China is bigger than his love for anything else in his life.
The Submission by Amy Waldman – This book will have your group thinking and talking more than any book in awhile. The plot – a jury chooses the final design for the 9-11 memorial only to find out that it was submitted by a Muslim. The reactions to this selection of the jurors, the public a reporter and the architect who submitted the design intermingle with politics, prejudices, emotions and thoughts about art. Somehow this seems like an appropriate book to read in September.
Anything by Jane Austen – They made a movie about Jane Austen being great for book clubs, need we say more?
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (2010) – A superb story of life as an immigrant to America, and life as a doctor. In this novel, twins Marion and Shiva Stone are orphaned by their mother’s death and their surgeon father’s disappearance, and come of age as Ethiopia hovers on the brink of revolution. Since Mr. Verghese advised John Irving as he wrote the AIDS scenes in In One Person (see review below), it might be a great pairing.
My Antonia (1918) by Willa Cather - A true classic that stands up over time. Great for anyone wanting greater insight into the Midwest and earlier stages of US immigration. Also provides insight into the lives of American women.
Into the Beautiful North (2010)by Urrea – It is as if Jon Stewart wrote a novel of gorgeous prose about Mexican immigration into the USA. With this tale you learn about life in a small Mexican town after all the men have left for jobs in the US. When desperados arrive to take over from the children and older citizens that have stayed, a teen and her colorful collection of friends, inspired by a screening of The Magnificent Seven, decide to sneak across the US border and convince seven men to come back to Mexico and save their town. Humor, coyote crossings and apt commentary about all the prejudices we all hold.
Let the Great World Spin (2009) by Colum McCann – A great look at NYC and 9/11 and characters whose lives touch by coincidence but whose impact on each other is profound.
On Beauty (2005) by Zadie Smith. We recommend pairing is with Howard’s End by EM Forster the next month. On Beauty is a modern homage to Forster’s masterpiece about the British social classes. Reading the two back to back and discussing them leads to amazing conversations.
When the Elephants Dance (2003) by Tessa Uriza Holthe. This novel provides insight into Filipino culture in the waning days of World War II as the Karangalans-a family who huddle with their neighbors in the cellar of a house near Manila to wait out the war - entertain each other with stories in between forays to the outside world for food. Spellbinding myths and legends abound, and give them much needed resolve to survive.
Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away (2011) is a novel set smack dab in the oil-polluted, violent back waters of the Niger River Delta. It examines the complex political and economic problems of this petroleum rich country from the perspective of a twelve-year-old girl named Blessing. She is full of questions about the often perplexing behaviors of those around her: her beloved brother Ezekiel who’s fallen in with a dangerous crowd while trying to navigate the path to adulthood; her mid-wife grandmother a fountain of Nigerian fables and wisdom but also of cultural contradictions; her own mother who is always working, desperate to escape her impoverished surroundings and to educate her children; her Christian-turned-Muslim grandfather who decides it’s time to take a much younger second wife; and this silly, yet endearing, second wife herself, Celestine. This is a special coming of age story.
Rules of Civility (2011) by Amos Towles. This fabulous novel transports. It’s set in Depression-era Manhattan and is gloriously atmospheric in the New York it portrays (think flapper dresses, smoky jazz clubs and Great Gatsby-esque Hampton estates with flowing champagne). It is also rich in strong characters and probing in the questions it asks its readers about choices, careers paths and the assumptions we make in life. Towles writing is polished, gorgeous even (hard to believe it’s a first novel), and takes us to 1938 to tell the story of that year in the life of Katey Kontent, a smart, ambitious, working class girl who finds herself rubbing shoulders with the 1%. Besides being a great read, it is a love letter to New York City.
Little Bee by Chris Cleave (2010). It’s dramatic plot (difficult to read at times – especially the scenes on the beach) help to explain the unrest that currently exists in Nigeria and that continues to create a steady flow of refugees like the character Little Bee to England. It explores what happens when the lives of one Nigerian refugee and several contemporary Londoners intersect. We argued over the writing but the discussions the plot created were superb.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1856) – The original desperate housewife, love, adultery, betrayal, amazing writing, and it is considered a classic what more could you ask from a book club book? If you are looking for a pairing, try John Irving’s In One Person - Madame Bovary has huge implications for the plot, and would add a modern day theme to your discussion during the next month’s book club.
Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron (2012) – The author’s true gift is that she makes a book about a country torn apart from genocide hopeful, without flinching from the awful truths contained in Rwanda and in the world’s lack of response to the horrors there. The characters are extremely memorable and often extremely human role models. The story amptly illustrates the strong ties of family and friendship, and the love that can overcome hatred even as all hell breaks loose; even if ultimately, that love can not save everyone. Since it is the second of the two winners of the Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction that we have truly enjoyed, we vow to add the annual winners to reading lists.
The Cove by Ron Rash (April 2012) – A haunting tale about the power of prejudice and love. Set during WWI in a dark cove in the rural Appalachian mountains of North Carolina, the book follows the life of Laurel and her brother Hank, newly returned and maimed from serving in France. The story begins as they offer shelter to a mute musician – Walter – who wanders into their home. Due to abundant local superstitions about the Cove and Laurel’s birthmark mark, a visitor is eerily unique. When the outside world intrudes and secrets are revealed, of course tragedy strikes. However, you will enjoy the story that gets you there and the small piece of hope you are left with.
The Book Of Jonas by Stephen Dau (2012) — A truly spare and haunting book about a young Muslim war orphan whose family is killed in a military operation gone wrong, and of the American soldier to whom his fate is bound. The book explores how people adjust to the ultimate tragedy – loss of loved ones. The Book of Jonas allows the reader to look at the terrible choices made during war, how people deal with the unknown and what happens when disaster appears in your own life.
Substantive Reads – Non-Fiction
Zeitoun (2011) by Dave Eggers – New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina will never mean the same thing again. This well-researched, non-fiction book travels from New Orleans, Syria and Spain to better understand the life of Abdulrahman Zeitoun and how he disappeared into the flood waters in 2005.
Just Kids (2010) by Patti Smith – The 70s as seen through the eyes of the “in” crowd in Manhattan. You will be surprised on every page by he gorgeous prose and the who’s who of New York City Art scene as seen through the eyes of Ms. Smith.
West with the Night (1942, 1983) by Beryl Markham- This incredible book shows how an amazing woman lived, flew, loved and laughed in Africa in the early part of the 20th century. A GREAT read and a superb book club book.
Faster reads that are much more than fluff
The Dinner by Herman Koch (2012) – This page-turner will keep you up all night as you race to finish it. Then, it will keep you up for many nights going forward as you think about the disturbing traits and situations it unearths. Amidst the dark, dark satire are very uncomfortable truths; it is these and to be honest – the entire premise – that will leave you slightly reeling when finished. (Of course it could be the lack of sleep reading this caused.) We can’t say any more because revealing any plot items would be unfair to any future readers. But note, this would be a GREAT book club book because you are going to need to talk with someone about it. Plus, it is a quick read – a bonus when cramming for book club discussions.
The Terror by Dan Simmons– A spooky look at an actual Arctic tragedy will have you thinking about what you would do to survive.
Bitter in the Mouth by Monique Truong – An affliction which makes words have taste renders a girl at a loss for words in many situations. The affliction serves as a meaningful metaphor for all the incredibly important things that the characters in this book can not or do not discuss.
Vida by Patricia Engel – Connected short stories by and about Colombian-Americans, but hold up on their own as well. Reminiscent of Jumpha Lahiri’s work. Provides great insight into growing up in 1970 and 1980s new Jersey, as well as life in Colombia. A quick read if your club needs one.
The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow - A novel about a childhood interrupted due to the parents’ bad, bad choices. A look at the projects, race/bi-racialness and what being poor and/or being black means as you grow up in the USA. Another winner of the Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, written by a poised and gracious woman.
For Adult-Kid book clubs
Twerp by Mark Goldblatt (May 28, 2013) – Julian is not a bully. He just made a very stupid decision that ended up hurting a kid. Set in 1960s Queens NY, this book explores the importance of belonging and of finding your own voice, and ultimately how hard it is to do the right thing when everyone else wants you to do something else. Told through a journal Julian keeps for his English teacher in order to get out of reading Julius Cesar, Julian’s voice will entertain as the story of forming his sixth grade “gang” of buddies, the devastation “liking” girls can wrought, and how hard it is to make new friends unfolds. Would be a great book to read with younger kids in your life (8-12), or for a parent child book clubs.