June 6, 2012

Jill & I have been part of a really wonderful book club for the last two years.  We are lucky to have a great group of women whose ages span two decades, and have many different interests, professions, family structures, and ambitions.

The structure of our book club is this–in January, all eleven members meet and bring two books each to “propose” to the group.  The group chooses one book per person, and we assign a month to each book.  For the hyper-organized (ahem, me), it’s great to have a finalized list of books early in the year, and asking each person to bring two choices ensures that we end up with a fair amount of diversity: fiction, nonfiction, classics, memoir, humor, and this year we’re scheduled to read our first young adult book and one play!

Along the way, we’ve discovered that the best book club books aren’t necessarily the best books, flat-out.  The best book club books are the ones with enough substance to chew on, and possibly a little controversy to leave room for disagreement and debate.

Here are some of the books our group has enjoyed reading & discussing the most.  Below that is our remaining list for 2013, in case you’re curious!


Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Amy Chua)

Unless you were living under a rock last year, you’ve probably already heard about this controversial parenting memoir.  Though only a small percentage of our book club’s members are parents, all of us found that we had opinions on Chua’s notions of “Asian parents” versus “Western parents” (more archetypes than racially determined characteristics).  Reflecting on our own backgrounds and the parenting culture we lived in proved to be lively and fascinating.

Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Ruined America (Barbara Ehrenreich)

Ehrenreich is best known for her book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America; she approaches nonfiction from a mythbusting journalist’s zeal.  Though no one agreed with every point in this book, we all were intrigued by her paradigm-shifting thesis–that by constantly emphasizing the positive, our culture leaves no room for important, negative thoughts and feelings.

Howard’s End (E.M. Forester)

We usually end up working in at least one classic on our yearly list, and this was the most universally enjoyed of the ones we’ve read.  Forester is fairly approachable, and this novel is shorter than many of its Brit Lit contemporaries, though it still packs in hefty themes: the value of art & culture versus that of wealth and privilege, the changing role of women in British society, class differences and structure, and the struggle of human beings to connect to one another.

In the Sanctuary of Outcasts (Neil White)

Not a particularly literary read, but a fascinating one.  This memoir of a man who loses everything–wealth, privilege, reputation, marriage–when he is caught kiting checks takes an unexpected turn when he is sentenced to serve time in prison in Carville, Louisiana.  Not just a prison but also a historic leper colony, Carville holds surprises and lessons for the author, whose horror over the presence of Carville’s patients turns to fascination as he discovers their powerful stories.  An easy read, this book exposed us all to a sector of human experience that we didn’t know we didn’t know anything about.

Lighthousekeeping (Jeanette Winterson)

Make no mistake about it: this is a strange, strange book.  Winterson, as an author, depends on the willingness of her reader to travel with her as she moves, quite literally, all over the place–not everyone in our book club was up for that.  But many of us, dazzled by prowess and captivated by her characters, were willing to take the ride, and wound up having a rather fascinating conversation about form, structure, and the nature of reading fiction itself.

Look Me in the Eye (John Elder Robinson)

The author is brother to Running With Scissors’ Augusten Burroughs, but you need not be familiar with that story to appreciate this one.  Robinson has Asperger’s Syndrome, but for most of his life he (and everyone else) simply thought something was wrong with him: he did not think or act like any other kid he knew.  With plenty of pitfalls along the way, Robinson managed to harness his incredible mind for engineering, working for bands like KISS, before becoming diagnosed as an adult and learning to adjust to a world that expect him to look people in the eye.

March (Geraldine Brooks)

Pulitzer Prize winner and absolutely stunning.  Brooks imagines the story of Mr. March, the absent father of Little Women, as he serves as a conflicted chaplain during the Civil War.  An incredibly compelling narrator; I didn’t want the book to end.  This was an all-around favorite in my book club.

Nothing Was the Same (Kay Redfield Jamison)

This book recently sparked a thoughtful, engaging discussion in my book club.  We all loved it, but in different ways and for different reasons.  It is, more than anything, a beautiful record of the incredible relationship between Jamison and her late husband.  She also writes eloquently and honestly about her grief without becoming sentimental, something I personally value.

This Republic of Suffering (Drew Gilpin Faust)

An intense read, both in subject matter and sheer density, this is still a nonfiction book worth checking out.  Faust is the president of Harvard University, and a formidable Civil War historian; here, she outlines the ways in which the immensity of death (losses/grief within families, sheer number of bodies, logistical difficulties of battle, body transport, and burial) changed the physical, emotional, and psychological landscape of this country forever.  Incredibly powerful.

2013 Selections Remaining

Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World (Tracy Kidder)

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (John Berendt)

A Visit from the Goon Squad (Jennifer Egan)

What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (Michael J. Sandel)

Man’s Search for Meaning (Viktor Frankl)

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (Katherine Boo)

Tenth of December: Stories (George Saunders)



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