Having recently attended two very enjoyable book discussions, I’ve decided to voice a few more thoughts on this subject. Two of the book groups I attend (with some regularity) make their choices by means of a general shout-out. This occurs every few months – both of these groups meet every two months. Gradually the titles are winnowed down to those few that seem to have the most general appeal. (Nevertheless, there may be at least one person in the room thinking, Oh good grief, I do NOT want to read that! I’ve read bad reviews / it’s too long/ that author is overrated/I’ve already tried reading it and couldn’t get past page five, etc. etc. I freely confess that I have been that person, more than once.)
The third book group – The Usual Suspects, frequently referenced in this space, employs a different procedure for the selection of titles. Just before Christmas, each person chooses a month in the coming year when they’ll be responsible for leading the discussion. That same individual chooses the book to be discussed at that session. Whether or not others approve is immaterial, at least at this stage of the proceedings. We read the book, show up at the appointed time and place – and let fly! (Actually, we’re very civil.)
Of these two methods of choosing, I favor the one practiced by the Usual Suspects. It guards against haggling and impulsive decisions, possibly regretted at a later time. Oh, and one other suggestion: If it’s your selection that’s so to speak under the microscope, don’t start by asking people if liked the book. Instead, dive right in with the particulars. Sometimes a reader who’s formed a not especially favorable opinion of a book finds that same opinion being modified as the discussion goes forward. (This, too, has happened to me.)
Below is a list of books I’ve read in recent months that I enjoyed a great deal and that, in my view, would be good book group choices (or in my case already have been, as indicated by an asterisk):
The Unknown Bridesmaid – Margaret Forster
Stoner – John Williams
*Sparta – Roxana Robinson
*The Invention of Wings – Sue Monk Kidd
The Children Act – Ian McEwan
The Weight of Water – Anita Shreve
American Romantic – Ward Just
Some Luck – Jane Smiley
Clever Girl – Tessa Hadley
CRIME AND SUSPENSE
*An Officer and a Spy – Robert Harris
Sandrine’s Case – Thomas H. Cook
After I’m Gone – Laura Lippman
– Candace Fleming
A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal – Ben Macintyre
*The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder – Charles Graeber
It’s been a while since I read anything by Jane Smiley. I had a feeling I would like her latest. “Like” is too weak a word. I thought it was terrific. Some Luck is the first in a projected three volume saga of the Langdon family. It begins on a farm in Iowa in 1920. The rural life there is described with such loving care that I wished things could stay the same forever. But of course they can’t – and they don’t.
There was nothing extraordinary about these characters except that they spring from the fervent imagination of a master craftsman. I care so much about what happens to them! I look forward eagerly to the next installment.
The Unknown Bridesmaid seems, indeed, to be all but unknown. I sought it out on the basis of a review in The New York Times. The reviewer, Michelle Wildgen, calls it “a mesmerizing, unsettling novel.” Forster tells the story of Julia, beginning with her girlhood, as she becomes increasingly at odds with her loving yet strangely uncommunicative family. I can’t describe the hypnotic effect this story had on me any better than Wildgen does, so I’ll let her do it:
One isn’t always certain what, exactly, there is to fear in the middle-class environs in which Julia grows up, but no matter how mundane the event, the atmosphere is electric with significance.
(Click here for the full text of the review.)
I’d love to lead a discussion of this novel. This would give me a perfect reason to reread it, which I want to do anyway.