Choosing Book Club Titles for 2016

Book Club Post

Hello! I’m so sorry I disappeared there in December. The holidays and my trip to Colorado seemed to come upon me sooner than I expected and I didn’t write the holiday posts that I had planned – I suppose there’s always next year – onward to 2016!

My book club is going into its 4th year of existence (our anniversary is in March) and I decided that this year we needed to find a new way to choose our books. The first year we voted every month on a list of titles that I compiled, the second year I chose all the books for the year in advance, and last year we took turns choosing titles every month. This year I wanted the process to be a bit less…contentious. Perhaps that’s not the right word – anonymous is probably better. All the members of my book club are lovely people, but there have been instances of dissatisfaction, irritation and disagreement from time to time with the books we choose and the process that we’ve used to choose them. So this year I did something a little bit different.

Back in November I used Survey Monkey to solicit 3 suggestions from each member. Since we decided to focus on classics this year all suggestions needed to be published before 1970. Once I had the suggestions I compiled them and sent out another Survey Monkey link to where everyone could vote for their top choices. Everything was completely anonymous. We only chose for the first six months because I wanted to make sure this worked and I thought trying to choose 12 books might be overwhelming for our first time with this new process. After all the votes came in I made a list of the 6 books that got the most votes and those are the titles that we’re reading from now until June. What did we choose? Here are our selections:

January – Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

February – My Antonia by Willa Cather

March – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

April – Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

May – The Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

June – Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini

I think this was a successful way to choose our books and that we all enjoyed the voting process and finding out which books got the most votes. Though I administered it all I was just as surprised by the selections as anyone else was. I think we have a good variety of books and I look forward to reading all of them. This method will definitely reduce the level of indecision about what to choose and the small disagreements or resentments that happened sometimes in previous years.

Have you read any of these titles? How does your book club choose books?

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Book Club: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

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My book club has been meeting for almost 3 full years now and for much of that time I’ve lobbied to get Gilead on our schedule with no success – until last month! Since this year we took turns choosing the books I knew this would finally be the year we read it (since I’d pick it for my month) and I’m very glad we did. What a marvelous book!

Gilead is written in the form of one long letter from Reverend John Ames to his six-year-old son. Reverend Ames is dying of a heart condition and wants to set down his family history and his thoughts on religion and life in general for his son to read in the future since he won’t be able to tell him these things himself. In a rather rambling style he moves from the past to the present – much like our thoughts work, but all in a really beautiful, lyrical style that is a joy to read.

The first bit of the novel is Ames’s musings and explorations of his heritage and childhood and then the letter switches to a present day description of his struggle to communicate with or trust his best friend’s son, Jack Boughton. Jack is a bad egg, so to speak, and Ames doesn’t like how he hangs around Ames’s son and wife and his cynical, unbelieving attitude. One of the book club members said she thought this part of the novel was unnecessary – she loved just reading about Ames’s memories and philosophical meditations. I thought the conflict (even if just internally) with Jack was fascinating and revealed many more depths of Ames’s character that will someday benefit his son.

Since my book club met during Thanksgiving week we didn’t get a very good turnout, but those of us who attended had a very passionate discussion. This is one of those books that is not only a pleasurable and rewarding read, but also makes for an incredibly stimulating discussion title. I think this is one of the best books that my book club read this year.

Have you read Gilead?

Book Club: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott

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Last week my book club gathered to discuss Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, a nonfiction title about four women who participated in espionage activities during the Civil War. This was the fourth nonfiction book that we’ve read this year (the others are The Knife Man, When Paris Went Dark and The Plantagenets) and it wasn’t a favorite. Only three out of seven of us finished the book so the discussion was a bit lackluster.

I personally enjoyed the subject matter as I’ve always loved spy stories and reading about these bold women (two for the Confederate and two for the Union) who risked their very lives to provide vital information to the military was completely absorbing. My favorite of the spies was a woman named Elizabeth Van Lew, an unmarried woman who lived in the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia, yet who believed in the Union cause, especially abolition. She created an intricate spy network whose members gave the Union army information about Confederate troop movements and she also helped Union soldiers escape from prisons in and around Richmond. Out of all four of the women she was the one whose motives for spying were the purest (in my opinion) and who never profited off of her experience by writing her memoir or giving speeches. I think she is a true hero.

The trouble with the book is that it is written in a narrative nonfiction style – so it is meant to read like a novel. The author embellishes the facts with lots of little imaginative details that do feel more like reading a novel than reading a historical nonfiction book. I am not completely opposed to this style as I feel it does make history come alive when done well, but in this instance it seemed to interfere with the flow of the book. The chapters are very short and choppy, sometimes almost like vignettes and it was rather annoying to have a cliff hanger every other chapter. The three of us who finished the book all noted the style as problematic and I think it might have contributed to the other members not being able to finish the book.

Our next book up for discussion at the end of September is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. It’s a book I’ve read before and liked and I am looking forward to reading it again.

Book Club: The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer

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My book club is continuing to take turns choosing our discussion titles each month. We’ve read some really varied¬†things this year, including a lot more non-fiction than we’ve ever read (we have another non-fiction title up in August), a golden age mystery, a historical literary novel and a classic novel. So I wasn’t really surprised when one of the members chose a Regency romance for our July discussion. The member who chose it wanted to read it because it is her mom’s favorite book and she thought it would be fun to read it with the group. Her mom lives in Manchester, England and we wanted to Skype her in for the discussion, but she was understandably nervous about the reaction to her beloved novel (also it would have been 3:30 am in Manchester when we started our discussion).

As it turned out, she needn’t have worried because we all loved it! Heyer’s blend of humor, clever dialogue, a brisk moving plot, historical accuracy and, of course, romance, is an absolute delight. The Grand Sophy starts when Lady Ombersley is asked by her brother to take in his daughter Sophy who has lived abroad for much of her life. Lady Ombersley is hesitant as she, her husband and her children are all under the thumb of her eldest son Charles, who’s recently become heir to his uncle’s fortune. She doesn’t think that Charles will want the expense and hassle of trying to find a husband for Sophy, but reluctantly agrees to accept Sophy into her home anyway. Little does she know what she’s in for – Sophy turns out to be a very high-spirited manager who handily fixes the family’s problems and easily discerns what would be best for them better than they really know for themselves. She’s confident, doesn’t take offense and is lots of fun – a really memorable character.

I wasn’t sure how the discussion would go since The Grand Sophy isn’t deep literature, but we actually had a very lively conversation about what the novel says about womanliness, romance, motherhood, and manipulation. It was one of the best discussions that we’ve had this year.

Next up we’re reading Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott.

 

Someone by Alice McDermott

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At my book club’s April meeting I presented three books for the group to choose from and the overwhelming vote was for Someone by Alice McDermott – because it is quite short! However, I was pleased with the choice as this is a novel I’ve contemplated reading for quite a while now and Sunday over at Ciao Domenica had nothing but praise for it which piqued my interest even more.

This is one of those books that is more of a character study than anything – there really isn’t a traditional plot arc that holds it all together. In fact, the narrative moves in out and between the present and the past with no discernible transitions so it takes about 20 pages to realize what McDermott is doing and to become comfortable with the structure. Once you do, though, it’s quite easy to ride the wave of the main character’s memories.

The novel is told in the first person by Marie Commeford, an elderly woman who grew up in Brooklyn during the thirties and forties. Most of her memories center on the years of her childhood and young adulthood. Her family is Irish Catholic and live in a predominately Irish Catholic neighborhood and she is close to her beloved father and older brother who’s already been chosen to attend seminary at a young age. Most of her memories have that tender, almost yearning quality that we have as adults looking back on our childhoods. There is a lot of death and a lot of disappointment in her life, but she tells her story very straightforwardly with little regret. As I’ve mentioned, there isn’t a lot that happens in the novel yet Marie’s unexceptional story is riveting, more riveting to me than that of a spy story or an adventure story. Reading about ordinary people is always fascinating because most of us are ordinary – yet when you read something like this you realize that everyone has an interesting life and that, truly, everyone is ‘someone’.

How did my book club like it? Well, I think the majority of us appreciated it, but there were two members who didn’t – they didn’t see the point of the meandering style and just didn’t enjoy reading about Marie’s life. Despite that we all managed to have a pretty lively discussion about the book and I think it really set off a lot of related examination of our own memories and life stories. All in all, I’d recommend this for book clubs as it is a) short and b) brings up a lot of issues that will lead to a thoughtful discussion.

Have you read Alice McDermott?

Great Book Suggestions for Book Clubs

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Thank you so much for all of your excellent feedback and suggestions for book club books. I haven’t yet decided what I’m going to choose for our May discussion, but now I have a fantastic list to select from and also have a surplus of titles to consider for future months. I’m going to share this list with the rest of my book club members in case they need suggestions as well. It’s always easier to decide on a book when the field is already narrowed to a list of reputable titles. Below, I’ve compiled the titles into an alphabetical list and also included recommended authors – hopefully, this will help others looking for good discussion books or just a good read for themselves. Thanks again!

Specific Titles

Coral Glynn – Peter Cameron

The Cutting Season – Attica Locke

Death Comes for the Archbishop – Willa Cather

Excellent Women – Barbara Pym

Funny Girl – Nick Hornby

The Hollow Land – Jane Gardam

Jim the Boy – Tony Earley

Listening Valley – D.E. Stevenson

Little Century – Anna Keesey

A Lost Lady – Willa Cather

A Month in the Country – J.L. Carr

Murder Past Due – Miranda James

Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro

The Penelopiad – Margaret Atwood

The Rosemary Tree – Elizabeth Goudge

The Scent of Water – Elizabeth Goudge

Secret Daughter – Shilpi Somaya Gowda

Silas Marner – George Eliot

The Solitary Summer – Elizabeth Von Arnim

Someone – Alice McDermott (Twitter suggestion)

The Soul of Kindness – Elizabeth Taylor

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

To Say Nothing of the Dog – Connie Willis

Vanessa and Her Sister  РPriya Parmar

The Young Clementina – D.E. Stevenson

Authors

Tove Jansson

Penelope Lively

Emily St. John Mandel

Edith Wharton

Dorothy Whipple

I Need Your Suggestions

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This year my book club decided to choose our books a different way than we have in the past. Each month a different member gets to pick the book with no arguments or vetoing. There are only two rules: it must be 400 or less pages and available at several different libraries in the area. The unspoken rules: nothing too dark, violent, sexy or sweary. The first three months of the year we read non-fiction and this month we’ll discuss Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers.

May is my month. And I am having a tough time deciding what we should read. I’ve decided on then quickly discarded about five titles now and am starting to panic. Our meeting isn’t until next week so I have a bit of time to make up my mind, but I’d really love some suggestions. Have you read anything lately that fits our criteria and would be great for a discussion group? Of course, you wouldn’t know about library availability but discounting that do you have any brilliant recommendations? I want to choose a novel and something somewhat shortish. Classic or contemporary. Male or female author. Literary or genre fiction. I just need ideas!

Thanks in advance!