Sunday, April 6, 2014

Sunday Salon: Book Club edition

Over the years, I have been in a whole lot of book clubs. When you move around the country as much as we have, you get to sample all sorts of different versions. One that has stayed consistent in my life is my summer book club. As it is now spring again (at least it is here, my sincere condolences if you are still fighting cold and snow where you are), my thoughts have turned to picking books for that group again. And that led me down the path of what makes for a good book club book.

The summer book club started more than a decade ago when my mother read a book (This One and Magic Life) and was desperate to discuss it with someone, anyone. But she couldn't find anyone who had read it. I told her to start a book club, invite her friends, and make that the first selection. She preferred to have me do the legwork and lead the discussion so it quickly became my book club. I still choose all the books for it these many years later even though I periodically offer to cede Supreme High Choosing Power to others. We've had a long run with some great choices, some good choices, and some hideous choices. I have solicited other reading friends for their suggestions; I read book blogs and industry e-mails; I track buzz books; I search out little known offerings. And after lengthy consideration (some years) or a brief glance at my options (busier years), I make my choices for the three summer months we small but inclusive group of women converge on a beautiful island chain in Upper Peninsula Michigan.

Even though we've had some bombs, I think we've had more good than bad because I have held fast to my own concept of what sorts of books we'll read and what makes for a good book club book. For the purposes of the summer group, I typically try to choose books that are out in paperback as the library by us is quite small and finding multiple copies of a book there could be difficult, especially given my desire for less well known books. I like to find books that are not getting a huge marketing push or massive amounts of buzz (enough to carry over into prominent bookstore placement where all of the members will have already seen and possibly bought them), although the one time I ignored this stricture (The Book Thief) because I felt like I needed a push to read it myself, it was a huge success. I look for undiscovered gems that are well written and literary enough to provoke a discussion. No beach reads here (well, not that we tackle as a group). I am less worried about whether people will like the book than if I think there's enough meat to it to keep a discussion rolling. When one early potential member suggested that she really loved Danielle Steel, it took all of my generally non-existent diplomatic skills to gently tell her that Danielle Steel, while perhaps very satisfying for her to read, wouldn't exactly be highly discussable. Although not one of my usual "rules" about our choices, I do keep an eye out for books set in or close to the area in which we are reading because it's fun to read something we recognize intimately. This can and has backfired horribly (The Lake, the River, and the Other Lake) but I still consider it anyway because I am a glutton for punishment.

In choosing, I also find that I have to worry about my own prejudices and leanings. Last summer when I chose yet another book set in India (Dancing to the Flute) because I do so love books set in India, the collective thought, which the members didn't hesitate to share with me, was "Not another Indian book!" Good thing most everyone liked it well enough and we had a good discussion or they might have tarred and feathered me. This summer I won't be choosing a book set in India.  In my defense, I think I've only really chosen about four Indian-set books over the years even if everyone else feels like I've chosen hundreds.  I do like to choose books I haven't yet read but I don't always hold to that rule and I'm really debating it hard this year as there's one book I feel compelled to put in as many hands as I can (Shotgun Lovesongs). That it's only out in hardback is making me hesitate. So while I haven't yet decided on the books we'll be reading this June, July, and August, I do have my eyes open and am starting to ponder the choices.

My summer book club isn't my only book club currently either. I'm not the Supreme High Chooser for either of the others, a neighborhood group and a group for the Charlotte chapter of the WNBA. Each of these groups chooses books differently than the summer group (of course) and differently from each other. The neighborhood group likes to make sure we hit different kinds of books throughout the year so a common question heard when we get to the selection part of our evenings is "What sort of book haven't we read in a while?" This makes sure we don't read one type of book over and over again (think Indian-set books).  We read non-fiction, fiction, mystery, sci-fi, YA, classics, and more. We only choose about two months in advance for this group, leaving the possibility open for catching newer, buzzy books as the year goes on. The WNBA group reads books based entirely on the previous year's Great Group Reads so we have a smaller, self-selected, already vetted list from which to choose. We vote on these books in October (reading group month and when the new list is released every year), plotting out our entire year in advance. At this point, I do know what both of these groups are reading next. The neighborhood group is reading The Night Circus followed by Where'd You Go, Bernadette? the next two months. The WNBA group still has A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, The Other Typist, Life After Life (the Kate Atkinson novel), Ordinary Grace, and The House Girl left on the schedule for our year.

What sorts of criteria do you have for choosing book club books? Does it differ from choosing books just for pleasure? And finally, have you read anything that fits my criteria and that I should consider in my role as Supreme High Chooser for the summer book club?

I had fully intended to finish up some of the unfinished books hanging around here this weekend since I have no other reading commitments but instead, I jumped into another bunch of books, just dipping my toe in their pages and making the stack of books on my bedside table rather precarious. I started off by visiting a small Greek island with an American woman who'd returned there to visit long neglected family and to get married. Then I watched as a woman in New York faced the reality of her feelings for her husband and stumbled onto his shady dealings. I am still immersed in the world of a slaveholder who uses one of his slaves as a stud for fee, a Eurpoean pre-wedding caper, the world of introverts, and short pieces centered around a tall, kind Southern woman who marries into a Jewish family during WWII. I hope your reading adventures have been as varied and entertaining as mine this past week.


  1. I haven't been in a book club for very long - it seemed impossible to find one in our area. So I don't have a lot to go on but it seems the rules are fairly relaxed: it must be in paperback and it must be too long. about 450 pages seems to be the max. the members take it in turns to suggest a book. I've only proposed two so far and I did so on the basis that they would generate good discussion. we do mix the genres a bit also

  2. Could you just move here and run a book club in my neighborhood?? ;) I've wanted to join/start one for ages. I'm being a chicken about it for some reason.

  3. The special book club I participate in was formed after a shooting tragedy in my community that had a race element to it. So, we read (mostly) books about race in America. Our September meeting each year is our selection meeting. We have a pot luck supper (the only time food is allowed because we meet at the library the rest of the year) and all bring in books we think will be interesting for the group. Then we vote to choose the selections for the year.

    We've read several that would be good for a more general audience:
    *The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
    *Life on the Color Line by Gregory Williams
    *The Color of Water by James McBride
    *The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore
    *The Grace of Silence by Michele Norris
    *The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
    *Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

    Joy's Book Blog


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