Choosing books for book club isn’t part of my job anymore, but I know how hard it can be. Unless the members of your book discussion group share similar reading tastes, have the same reasons for joining a book group, and are willing to leave their reading comfort zones occasionally, the selection process is difficult and subject to criticism. It’s even harder when having to depend on the availability of library copies in regular print and large print. The book that everyone is currently raving about and wants to read is always out of the question.
These mini reviews are of books I read for various book clubs that engendered lively discussion or evoked differing opinions among the group members.
Familiar by J. Robert Lennon
This is a work of literary fiction that starts with a crazy what-if premise – in this case, what if you were a woman driving home from an out-of-state visit and experienced a sudden, subtle change in what your body was like, what car you drove, etc. and realized you were either going crazy or something in space-time had shifted and you were living a very different version of your own life – and is completely realistic from that point on, making it more of a psychological study than science fiction, or is it? Not for every book group, Familiar could work in a group that enjoys ambiguity, going off the beaten book-club path, and reading books that have multiple interpretations.
Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
I guess this novel (the author’s seventh, but the first one I’ve read) would fall into the genre or subgenre I only just heard about — cli-fi, or fiction that deals with climate change – although apparently the term has been around since 2008. Flight Behavior is an excellent book club choice, with plenty of issues to discuss and metaphors to mull over. The main character with the unlikely name of Dellarobia Turnbow, is a smart, dissatisfied woman – always a hit with most book groups – and the book is about her awakening from her half-life as a wife and mother into a new one when she stumbles on a vast number of monarch butterflies that seem to have gotten lost on the mountainside behind her house in Tennessee.
Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini
Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker portrays pre- and post-Civil War history through the eyes of Elizabeth Keckley, an African-American former slave who bought her own freedom and became a successful independent dressmaker in Washington, D.C. When she eventually gains the new First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln, as a client, she shares in many intimate family moments as she sits and sews in the White House parlor, as well as having an insider’s view of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency and his decisions leading up to and during the Civil War. The basic facts of Elizabeth Keckley’s life come from her own memoir, Behind the Scenes. This would make a good book club choice for groups that like straightforward historical fiction from a woman’s perspective. The author follows up on her success with one that focuses on Kate Chase Sprague, who is mentioned a few times here, called Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival, and The Spymistress, based on the life of Elizabeth Van Lew.
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
Even though this story borrowed from the fairy tale about a child made from snow that came to life, it seemed to appeal to readers who normally eschew fantasy as well as those who enjoy it, and to male readers as well as women, making it an ideal book club selection for a mixed group. In the story, a grieving, childless couple has moved to the Alaskan wilderness in the early 20th century and is trying to make a life there, just the two of them, on an isolated farm in the uncleared woods, far away from family and their former lives. (So, at the beginning of the book, things aren’t going so well, as you can probably guess, but then a child enters the picture.)
Sunset Park by Paul Auster
The first novel by this author that I’ve read, Sunset Park reminded me a bit of Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon and The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel, with its interconnected stories and focus on young people screwing up their lives as they enter adulthood. But Sunset Park wasn’t as gripping as either of those novels, maybe because the tone of the book was muted and the atmosphere less heavily freighted with doom. Set mostly in New York City, the main character, Miles, suffers from guilt over a long-held secret, and has been estranged from family and friends for years before moving back to Brooklyn where he grew up. Miles’ parents’ and housemates’ perspectives are included, resulting in the reader’s knowing a little about everybody but not a lot about anyone. Read a summary of the book club discussion by one of the members here.
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
With many references to Jane Eyre throughout and two reclusive writers as main characters, this Gothic tale generated a good amount of discussion about ghostly happenings, twins, truth-telling, unreliable narrators, and biography. I felt the lack of never having read Jane Eyre, but got by fine just knowing the plot outline, as most readers probably do. This was my second reading of The Thirteenth Tale (published in 2006) and I really didn’t remember the story from the first time around, which was good, because following the twists and turns of the plot (which jumps back and forth from past to present) is half the fun of the book. The other half is soaking up the Gothic atmosphere of mystery. Read about the book club discussion written by a member of the group here, and add a comment if you want!